2017 is caught in a crossfire of confusion between political fashion and fashionable politics.
Balenciaga’s latest collection cheekily nods to senator Bernie Sanders in a social media stunt that feels awfully uncalled-for in light of ever-growing global political anxieties, as it gestures at that politician’s failed social revolution through meme-ification (“Bernie would have won”), and the absurd reality that the very surprésence of social media fostered the ascendancy of a meme to leadership of the so-called free world.
But our culture’s over-dependency on visual communication hit its high point in analyses of Inauguration Day. While marginalized communities wait in uncertainty to see how exactly the new government will guide the US into a future indubitably unstable, the NYTimes found itself cornered into a commentary on perhaps the most meaningful and albeit silent aspect of the spectacle : Mr. and Mrs. Trump’s garments– as arbiters of the couple’s ideology . They point out how Melania strategically translates her sartorial choices into a language of power that signals Jacqueline Kennedy, and some vague concept of the modern Republican woman (unlike Ivanka’s Cinderella ball gown, that of Melania was “architectural” and “understated”). A defining day in political history reduced itself to signifiers, even churning out a meme of Melania’s expression. Nothing in particular was said about what Melania in-and-of herself stood for.
So what exactly is on the first lady’s agenda? Her out-of-nowhere stance on cyber-bullying notwithstanding, Melania’s platform can best be understood by a term she herself once referred to as head of Melania™ Timepieces & Fashion Jewelry : “Design Philosophy,” reformulated here for what it really is, fashionable politics par excellence.
This “Design” “Philosophy” (to stress Melania’s own usage of the term) can be best understood by its two fundamental components, untruth and terror, each informing the other.
Built atop the idea that any woman can look chic by purchasing low-cost gemstones in lieu of actual diamonds and rubies, Melania’s business model celebrates the reaping of untruth. Why turn away from luxury when feigning it is just as powerful? This relies on the non-interrogation beyond the surface. The brand is rooted in falsity as Melania’s expert creativity rests on a fake degree in architecture and design from the University of Slovenia, an institution whose reality is just as substantive as the threat Islam poses over, say, the threat of Melania’s own husband to the safety of this country.
Untruth, or falsity, is a fundamental tenant of Design Philosophy for Melania, and it bleeds into her political strategy. This is already discernable in the speech she made amidst her husband’s campaigning, which proved a forgery of that of Michelle Obama. And “Untrue,” is, as she claims, the media representations of her husband and his stance on women; “untrue” were many claims made about her past in Slovenia; even the existence of her half-brother Denis Cigelnjak she dismissed as rooted in falsity.
Untruth is not innocuous; it verges on terror, and it is in Melania’s theft of sartorial symbolism that this terror has already made itself known. Such an act of violence recalls George Perec’s moralist critique of the société de consommation. In a 1966 edition of the French magazine Arts Loisirs, Perec accused fashion of terrorism as it admits “no criteria other than those it arbitrarily sets for itself.” Rendering signs more important than the things which they are to represent, fashion welcomes a violence of conformity that disguises cyclical trends through a proclamation of the “new.” Paradoxically pulling toward the past while reconstructing it it, fashion denies the present what it actually represents. Indeed, both Mrs. Trump and Mrs. Kennedy serve as “First Lady,” standing firmly behind their husband’s politics, with poised, glinting femininity, but it takes no cognitive double-take to see how their glamour and grace harken diametrically opposed regimes. What Mrs. Trump takes as a source of inspiration effectively sweeps the origin of its historical signifiers under the rug. Appropriation of a style becomes an erasure of evolution in civil rights, through an injection of Trumpian terror. Is fashion fascism’s most powerful weapon?
Reminiscent of the untruth and terror that forms Donald Trump’s presidential agenda, Melania’s Design Philosophy is not different from her husband’s politics, an amalgamation of market-power, striking imagery (why is she always squinting in photos?), and complete disregard for reality. Falsity and terrorism are the hypernormalized politics of the era.
Perhaps most unsettling is the prospect that Donald’s politics takes its cues from Melanian philosophy, and not vice-versa. This (anti-)philosophical power-apparatus is incapable of asserting itself outside of the empty and false veneer from which it is constructed—- a fragmentary visual that encapsulates today’s political mood : memes, fashion, reality tv, and glamour. These fragments, incapable of discourses beyond themselves, are paradigmatic of a dé-doublement of the Iconic Turn— the phenomenon that marks a shift in cultural communication from linguistics to visual imagery. This relatively new, secondary stage of the triumph of the pictorial suggests that even if we were to subsume the two into one, neither politics nor philosophy can express themselves without the image, unable to dissect that which is more than just visual (has anything ever really been?). What the eye perceives trumps that which the intellect conceptualizes; the retina has a final say in a metaphysical certainty to which the intellect has, throughout the history of critique, sought to extract from some place beyond the sensorial.
Melania allegedly speaks five languages, and yet the only one the American public will need to hear the clearest is how she’s covered her foreignness not just through naturalization but through a donning of American glamour. We do not, we cannot, gauge her capacity for literacy, political, moral, or otherwise, by any other measurement.
The American dream, its falsity, and consequently its impending implosion, is at the mercy of Design Philosophy. Silently and stealthily tearing at political history, Melania Trump proposes a feminine side to the aggressive megalomania that our lust for visual exchange has gushed out into a very real public arena. Her philosophy is already becoming a foundation for federal policies, and will surely inspire totalitarian control elsewhere. Untruth meets terror in a spectacle too large and fragmented to even see clearly, all the more easy for its dissemination.