The Optics of Stilettos

Are heels appropriate #HurricaneHarvey attire?

Melania is in not-so-hot flood waters for wearing snakeskin stilettos with heels barely wider than a drinking straw. Here’s the photo making the rounds on Twitter:

Now, Melania is a beautiful lady, and she knows how to wear heels better than anyone. She is also free to wear whatever shoes she likes, as much as Newsweek would like us to think she’s ushering in the Handmaid’s Tale with every carefully placed step alongside her husband.

But today, she’s being mocked by members of the media for the pointy stilettos she sported while boarding Air Force One, even though she deplaned in sneakers. Nevertheless, optics matter. Vogue is not my go-to choice for political commentary, but Lynn Yaeger is right:

What kind of message does a fly-in visit from a First Lady in sky-high stilettos send to those suffering the enormous hardship, the devastation of this natural disaster?

Remember when George W. Bush was photographed looking out the window of Air Force One while flying over New Orleans after it was flattened by hurricane Katrina? Remember how bad that looked, as if the tragedy of New Orleans were merely a spectacle to the president? Bush did care, of course. There were valid reasons for not stopping in New Orleans that day. But pictures say a lot, even if you don’t mean them to. Shoes have more to say than “click-click, I have arrived.”

So it’s a strange day when I agree with Vogue and disagree with Ben Shapiro:

It seems Shapiro has more in common with the whiny SJW office drones when it comes to dress than he realizes — they insist we should ignore what people wear and pretend it doesn’t make a statement about oneself. But what we wear and in what context we wear it speaks volumes. You don’t wear white to a funeral in America. You don’t come to work in pajamas. You don’t wear a hoodie to a job interview. And you don’t wear perilously narrow stilettos as you board a plane to a hurricane disaster area.

The message you send is, “I don’t plan on getting my hands, much less my feet dirty when meeting victims of this disaster; I don’t plan on making myself uncomfortable amid the debris and despair, except for the sake of fashion.” Or worse, “I’m totally out of touch with the damage this hurricane wreaked on the area.” When the people you visit are in need of practical assistance, you don’t dress impractically when you take off to meet them to offer support.

Is that really what Melania thinks? I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say no. Perhaps she is just abiding by the old tradition of dressing up when one travels by plane — something that under normal circumstances, we could certainly use more of.

And it is certainly true that anti-Trump media is making a bigger deal of her heels than they should be. She did change into tennis shoes, after all. But the administration has to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt, which is a petty media looking for any excuse to attack Trump or the First Lady, or to exaggerate the consequence of something they did or said. So they must be careful. They must submit to the rule of optics, not to supplant substance, but to amplify it. Not doing so is foolish and will only hold back their agenda.

If Melania really cares very deeply about what’s happened to Houstonians, then she’ll make the effort, so the optics match her attitude. If she can wear pinnacles on her feet day in and day out as a style statement, she can surely do that.