Inside The Gilded White House: How The Trump Family Weaponized Fashion

Leigh Cuen
May 21, 2018 · 8 min read
Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Gabriel Silva

What the president lacks in experience he compensates for with macho, moneyed posturing — and he often uses fashion to those ends.

n January 20, 2017, Melania Trump approached the White House with an iconic Tiffany & Co. blue box in her gloved hands, just hours before her husband Donald’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States. Melania’s gift box and powder blue coat, which fashion critics said hearkened to the late Jackie Kennedy, captivated the media.

In the following months, Melania would be minted as a style idol, with headlines in publications from Vogue to The Inquisitr describing her as “defining First Lady style” and “becoming a fashion icon.” More recently, her Chanel couture at a state dinner with the Macrons inspired ample fawning.

Model and fashion mogul turned first daughter/White House adviser Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, has drawn similar praise for her style, with global fans in places like Japan naming her a “fashion icon.”

Donald himself, while certainly not considered stylish — he typically dons oversized suits — has nonetheless managed to convey the vibe of a “Reagan-era Wall Street mogul” with his simple, stiffly business-style looks. The president’s most famous touch is his bright red tie, known for its suggestion of aggression. (He wore this tie for inauguration.)

The Trump family is, of course, hardly the first to include members minted as fashion darlings, or to shrewdly use style as part of political messaging. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all occasionally wore jeans to appeal to working-class voters, and Obama family members famously wore more accessible, all-American brands like J.Crew than their successors, albeit often mixed with high-fashion pieces.

But there are some stark differences between past presidents and the way Donald Trump leverages fashion to mold his public image. Not only has the Trump family used fashion to perform untouchable luxury, it has leveraged this idea to further sell the problematic message that wealth equals greatness. More importantly still, it’s successfully weaponized fashion and its attendant symbolism to turn a healthy profit.

In the aftermath of Inauguration Day, audiences speculated about what secrets Melania’s box might hold. Michelle Obama later remarked on how unusual it was to receive a gift, a silver picture frame, in this highly ritualized political circumstance.

And yet, the gesture also encapsulated the Trump administration’s persona.

The blue of Tiffany boxes was inspired by the dress in this painting of Empress Eugenie de Montijo (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tiffany & Co. is not only New York’s most iconic luxury brand, it is perhaps the one most inextricably associated with royalty. The original color of those blue boxes came from a painting of a dress worn by 19th century fashion icon Empress Eugenie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III. Today, the company continues to tout its connections to royalty — one recent press release boasted about founder Charles Tiffany selling a pearl known as the “Queen Pearl” to Emperor Napoleon II and the Empress Eugenie of France in 1860.

The use of a Tiffany box sent a powerful message to the American people: The Trumps were to be seen not as public servants, but as American royalty. This regal fantasy has racial overtones, too; as one Republican blogger put it, some Trump supporters felt the new First Lady demonstrated a “European woman’s good breeding.”

The blue box was hardly the only example of Trump using fashion to associate his name with royalty. Dincuff Charleston, a fashion-history professor at Parsons, the New School for Design in New York, noticed how Trump’s particular brand of pomp and jewels — from magazine portraits of Melania dripping in diamonds to Trump surrounded by more gold than a dystopian Rumpelstiltskin in a “Midas-like gold and marble encrusted Fifth Avenue manse” — is reminiscent of royal portraits in the 1800s.

“Goya’s portrait of Charles IV of Spain and his Family comes to mind,” Charleston told me. “One imagines that if scotch tape were available at the time, Charles would have attempted to attach additional medals to his forehead” — something it’s not difficult to imagine Trump attempting as well.

Francisco Goya’s ‘Charles IV of Spain and His Family’ portrait (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Charleston connects Trump’s style sense to another regal figure as well: “Napoleon is also a prime example of a person who used fashion — the bicorne hat, increasingly elaborate uniforms and coronation robes, gowns, and symbols, such as the bee — to legitimize his position as a political leader.”

Trump’s family has, in short, used fashion to imply the White House wields aristocratic influence. The press is often breathless in its coverage of Melania’s royal-influenced (and influencing) sartorial choices. Ivanka, too, has taken cues from royals in cultivating her refined brand. In using fashion to associate with European royalty, Trump’s family appears to normalize inexperienced leaders through regal motifs, while peddling the idea that abundant wealth is a sign of personal value. As Trump proclaimed at a 2016 campaign rally: “You have to be wealthy in order to be great.”

The Trump administration’s penchant for associating riches with greatness is not benign; it helped sway the election. A Gallup study of 2016 voter demographics showed “economic distress” was a primary motivation among Trump supporters, even though they were more likely to be financially secure. Trump’s campaign speeches implied that his lucrative brands proved he was the only one who could make America rich.

According to ex-Forbes reporter Jonathan Greenberg, Trump even sought misleading press coverage in 1984 by lying about his wealth while using the on-the-nose alias “John Barron.” Since Trump joined the political arena, his fashion choices have enhanced this presentation of power.

What the president lacks in experience he compensates for with macho, moneyed posturing, and he often uses fashion to those ends.

The Trump family’s reliance on fashion to exert privilege is more than problematic symbolism; it’s a ploy to turn a profit, often while violating the ethics of the office.

Melania has been lambasted for explicitly leveraging her position as First Lady to hawk clothes and jewelry. Her lawyer’s documents described her White House tenure as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to launch a lifestyle brand. And just a few days into Trump’s presidency, her First Lady bio on the official White House website peddled her QVC jewelry line.

Ivanka, meanwhile, has a habit of wearing her own brands to high-profile events. She famously used a press release to try to sell a bracelet she wore on 60 Minutes. Throughout the first year of Trump’s presidency, there were also numerous reports of White House policies benefiting Ivanka’s fashion brands, which is particularly alarming considering her prominent role in the White House. Racked reported that the nonprofit legal organization Democracy Forward urged the Office of Government Ethics to investigate alleged misconduct related to Ivanka’s growing style empire. The nonprofit questioned whether Ivanka’s team coordinated with media outlets to market her clothing. For example, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway illegally promoted the first daughter’s brand on Fox & Friends.

On a more disturbing note, labor activists investigating human rights abuses in the Asian factories fueling Ivanka’s brands suddenly disappeared. The White House simultaneously warmed toward China. Speaking of Ivanka’s business ties in China, Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush who participated in a lawsuit accusing President Trump of constitutional violations, told the Associated Press: “I don’t know how much money she’s making on this and why it’s worth it. I think it’s putting our trade policy in a very awkward situation.”

All the while, Ivanka has managed a shrewd hat trick. Career tips from Ivanka’s website literally say embracing her femininity and dressing to “look the part” are part of her “secrets to success.” And of course, businesswomen need look no further than Ivanka’s brands to find such empowerment.

Donald is not exempt from such conflict of interests, either. His hotels, real estate complexes, and resorts often sell the type of suits and golfing attire he wears to display his wealth. Meanwhile, in a remarkable breach of presidential norm, his brands continue to sell campaign gear such as red hats. The Washington Post estimated that these hats garnered $672,000 in profit by June 2016, long before 2017 holiday merchandise campaigns marketed Trump’s red caps for $45 a pop.

The Trump family’s reliance on fashion to exert privilege is more than problematic symbolism.

None of this seems to be accidental. The Trump family, more than using clothing to suggest one must wear expensive fashion to be great, has successfully sold this idea to the public, and become even wealthier as a result. The implicit message is clear: Dress like us, and you too could be powerful and great.

All it takes is perusing Melania’s QVC jewelry line, buying a handbag from Ivanka’s fashion line, or dropping money for a business suit from the president’s signature “Trump Collection.”

As it turns out, even the use of that Tiffany & Co. box on Inauguration Day might’ve had monetary aims. The extra security surrounding Trump Tower was stifling sales at the jeweler’s next-door flagship store in New York. Indeed, the luxury brand released a statement for its shareholders blaming a 14% decline in sales at the store to “post-election traffic disruptions.” If this trend continued, it could have impacted Trump’s business relations; he purchased the air rights to the Fifth Avenue jewelry store for $5 million decades before entering politics.

“Beyond the giving of a gift being an indicator of ignorance or lack of respect of protocol and a social power play,” Charleston says, “there must have been tension between the building management, run by the Trump corporation, and Tiffany’s over the situation. I imagine that the Trumps saw this gesture as a way to placate the Tiffany company.”

Within hours of the inauguration, the jewelry brand’s name was splashed across global headlines. That kind of marketing opportunity is priceless.

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