What Conspicuous Consumption Looks Like to People in Need

Poor people can see you, Melania.

When Melania Trump boarded Marine One in four-inch stilettos en route to Houston to survey the ongoing damage from Tropical Storm Harvey, Twitter and the media had a field day. She later changed into sensible-ish sneakers (they look to be Jack Purcells, but it’s hard to tell definitively), but the damage was done.

Naturally, the initial mockery quickly shushed by those upset about the tendancy to police the fashion choices of visible women because, well, that’s how the internet works. Critics of the criticism called it “meaningless,” again repeating the chiding idea that people can hold only a handful of feelings at a time, particularly in times of disaster.

If we focus on her heels, we’re missing the bigger picture, which we much all joylessly focus on at literally all times.

Writing for the Washington Post, Robin Givhan noted that Mrs. Trump is, of course, a former fashion model and someone who does not get dressed by accident.

“Trump is the kind of woman who knows that when she walks from the White House to Marine One there will be photographers, and so she will dress accordingly…She knows fashion. She knows her angles.”

Which is important to remember in examining this mini-moment.

Mrs. Trump is not merely a woman on the street, and she’s not, herself, a politician or elected official. She is a First Lady who has yet to do much with the title. Because she seldom speaks in public or delivers addresses, the world has little to go on beside what she wears—and she knows it. Her appearance is her brand. So is critiquing it so wrong, particularly when it seems so tone-deaf, so out of touch with the reality on the ground in Houston?

Again, Givhan explains:

…every time she comes into public view, standing or walking silently alongside her husband, the image becomes a silent expression of intent and self-awareness. These pictures are her legacy.

And for her trip to Texas, the first lady offered up a fashion moment instead of an expression of empathy.

It’s unlikely that Mrs. Trump intends to make policy decisions on the ground in Houston. Unlike Ivanka Trump, Melania has expressed little interest in taking an active hand in the administration. She is there as a comforting presence, as a symbol of national unity.

This is why the stilettos matter—because they make it clear she got dressed in the morning and determined that one of her priorities that was going to be sinking into the White House lawn en route to a helicopter in shoes that look expensive.

Conspicuous consumption is easy to write off by those who are unbothered by displays of wealth, but for those who have lived without, it’s hard not to notice. Especially when those displays are meant to look, well, flashy.

I remember my grandmother, watching television in her double-wide trailer in rural Oregon, telling me that she liked one newscaster more than the other because she always dressed “normally.”

“She’s not dripping in labels and logos,” she explained. “She just wears plan sweaters and tops. She looks like she buys her clothes at K-Mart.”

The newscaster does not, of course, buy her clothes at K-Mart. When I saw the woman she was referring to, I noticed her simple, elegant Tiffany necklace. I noticed the quality of her sweater.

I only know about these things because I moved to a city and spent years studying what it meant to look like I had wealth. I wanted to know what the secrets were, what the little giveaways were, how I was exposing myself as a poor kid when I didn’t mean to be.

To my grandmother, what makes something look expensive is brands, logos, and outward signifiers. A knockoff purse with Chanel’s interlocking Cs looks expensive; a Birkin looks like something she might find at Ross Dress for Less.

Mrs. Trump wasn’t wearing deceptively-pricey Tori Burch flats (or even very-expensive sneakers like a certain previous FLOTUS). She was wearing a shoe associated with disposable income on her way to a place where thousands of people have recently been displaced.

Stilettos look expensive. And you’d better be damn sure that that matters to folks watching the news coverage from Red Cross shelters.

Of course it’s impossible to know what, exactly, Mrs. Trump was thinking—but it’s likely that she picked a shoe to board the helicopter that she new would look chic, not approachable, and understanding, in the photos.

It is the look of a woman who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how truly catastrophic the scene is where she’s going.

That’s not nothing, particularly for an administration that has built its support by courting working-class people who tend to turn up their noses at ostentatious displays of wealth. Who can forget the frothing critques about how much Michelle Obama’s clothing—and perhaps worse, Malia and Sasha’s gala gowns—cost the taxpayers?

The fact is that what people wear in public is a matter of public interest, regardless of their gender. And in the case of Melania Trump, a person who literally made a name for herself by wearing clothes, this is especially true.

When, in the coming months, President Trump delivers addresses about the cost of the cleanup, about the need to overdraw FEMA (a program he’d wanted to cut just a few months ago in order to build the wall along the Mexican border) even further, and about how everyone will need to tighten their belts, will voters forget exactly whose belt wasn’t particularly tight to begin with?

When, in the coming months, those recovering in Houston are scraping together meals based on food bank items, will they be thinking about the fancy people who pretended to care about them?

It’s easy to state simply that we ought not judge women on their appearance—and often that’s a case I’d argue, particularly when, for so long, women have been defined solely by their appearance. But I’d argue, too, the fashion choices of a one-time fashion professional do matter because they are part of the package.

The Trump Brand is one that’s highly manicured—it’s one of the President’s favorite matters to gloat about—and to pretend that the individual components of it do not, somehow, make up the larger picture is absurd. Because while many people may have seen The Stilettos as a blip (and something that doesn’t matter one bit), for millions of Americans watching their afternoon newscasts, those expensive-looking shoes are going to mean something and the Trumps knew it.

I wrote that one thing you didn’t really agree with. Interests include progressive policy, minor league baseball, and avoiding Zoom calls. Curious to a fault.

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