The Subtle Art of Diplomatic Dressing

· How high-profile women use fashion on the world stage ·

There is nothing quite like the pomp and circumstance of an official state visit to the United Kingdom. The British Royal Family knows how to put on a party and Queen Elizabeth II has been doing it longer than any other British monarch in history. This week, we saw the Trump family enjoy her hospitality and, of course, there were fashion moments abound. Which begs the question: what does one wear on the international stage to convey respect to the host country while advancing the profile of their own home country?

This state visit’s host, The Queen, is an expert in this soft diplomacy. Throughout her many years she’s made subtle nods to those she’s receiving and being received by through her clothes. This ranges from a color to a symbol to something as small as a brooch. Her Majesty, especially in her younger years, has made sure to advance British designers and brands: famously, her sister Margaret had more freedom to wear Dior’s New Look when it came out than she did as the future queen.

The Queen in Canada’s national colors and a maple leaf brooch on a visit to Canada. Via Zimbio

Her granddaughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge and future queen, has followed her lead and incorporated these gentle gestures into her wardrobe when meeting with world leaders or while on Royal Tours. She’ll wear British brands – I wonder if there is anyone in the world who owns more Alexander McQueen than Kate Middleton – or, if on tour, a local brand. From a dress with the New Zealand national plant adorned across her shoulder to maple leaves incorporated into a fascinator in Canada to a lesser known Polish designer in Warsaw, there is almost always more meaning behind what she wears in these high-profile situations than what meets the eye.

Michelle Obama was also adept at this, though in her own way. She communicated her accessibility by wearing J.Crew cardigans, while also making it a point to wear young designers. Her patronage catapulted up-and-coming designers onto the world stage and was just one way for her to use her status to lift others up around her. Like Jackie Kennedy, who was encouraged not to wear French designers and enlisted American designer Oleg Cassini, she deliberately wore American designers. In turn, looking through the list of designers worn at state dinners hosted at the White House, it’s often a ___-American designer with the blank filled in with whatever country is being hosted. It is such an easy and gentle way to send a message of unity with the guest.

In this way, diplomatic dressing is a subtle way to show respect and demonstrate that they’ve done their homework. It’s a sign that someone has taken the time to find out about the person or country they’re interacting with and gone to the effort to give a little nod to their culture, in whatever small way.  It is sensitive, delicate, understated, and subtle.

What Melania and Ivanka Trump, on the other hand, chose to wear on the state visit could be contrived to be considered diplomatic dressing. But in actuality, it felt more like costuming. Of course, the Trumps are about as subtle as a bomb and subtlety is what makes diplomatic dressing so effective. Instead of paying deference to their hosts and host country, the Trumps attempted to emulate them, or their idea of them. There was Melania’s white and blue outfit – complete with matching hat –that was compared to things worn by Princess Diana or that cream suit Ivanka wore that could have been an eighties facsimile of something the Duchess of Cambridge might wear but accessorized with a truly bizarre fascinator. The comparisons to the 1980s, and specifically Dynasty, were rife; what kind of diplomacy were they attempting here? One that reminds The Queen that the US has their own form of monarchy predicated on the Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous

The First Lady in Dolce & Gabbana. Via Vanity Fair
Ivanka Trump in Alessandra Rich. Via Mirror

Later on in the evening, the pair, along with the rest of the Trump family who was in attendance for some reason, changed into their white tie eveningwear and still, the entire Trump clan just couldn’t get seem to get things right. We’ll give Melania a point for adhering to the apparently unofficial dress code by wearing a white gown: The Queen, Camilla, and Kate were all in white, too, though all by British talent (with Kate in McQueen, of course). But the First Lady’s choice was by Dior, a house with no connection to either the US or the UK. Would it not have been better to spotlight a designer that either furthers America’s profile or nods to the host country? When on the 2011 state visit, Michelle Obama similarly opted for a white dress, but hers was by American designer Tom Ford. Appropriate and diplomatic. For her turn, though Ivanka’s dress felt a little out of place – was it too casual for the setting? too pastel? – it was by Carolina Herrera, a US-based designer. Meanwhile, younger Trump sister Tiffany looked like she was dressed up for a local production of The Age of Innocence and let’s not even get into Trump’s ill-fitting tuxedo and the implications of this lack of finesse. 

The Trumps, Melania in Dior, with The Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Via The Telegraph
The Obamas with The Queen and Prince Philip in 2011. Michelle is wearing American designer Tom Ford. Via Pinterest

So, what does all of this say about the First Family? For me, I see a lack of research and understanding of the occasion. I see a cursory glance at previous state dinners, a look at Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, and Meghan Markle and then an execution of a theatrical facsimile of all of the above without the delicacy this soft diplomacy requires. I see a missed opportunity to promote American brands or make the simplest gesture by wearing a British brand. I see women of whom almost all we know is through their appearance use an important occasion to play dress-up at an over-the-top level – something we’ve seen Melania do time and time again (remember the colonial pith helmet in Kenya and the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket to visit the migrant children being kept in cages?).

Today, we are trying to move away from judging women so much on their appearance. However, no matter what view you take, these high-profile women’s fashion choices say so much about who they are and what they value. We rarely hear the Duchess of Cambridge or Melania Trump speak and that makes the emphasis on what they wear so important. While we don’t hear Kate Middleton speak, we do see the respect she pays with every minute detail of her wardrobe. Did we hear Melania or Ivanka at all while they were in the UK? No, but we did see what they were wearing and the message they sent was not that they were here to reaffirm or improve relations with the UK, but to have their Princess Diana moment – quite literally – through dressing to their idea of Britishness.

Sartorial diplomacy is everything I love about fashion. It values tradition but also spotlights lesser-known designers. It is a clear and deliberate message sent through clothing choice, a manifestation of something we all do on a smaller, often subconscious level every morning when we get dressed. But the stakes are higher, and it shows how much thought – or lack thereof – was put into a wardrobe and event. After this week, there’s one thing that’s certain: a knack for sartorial diplomacy can’t be bought.