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Panelists Tackle Politics and Fashion at Diplomacy X Design

By David Jahng

Fashion is a $2.4 trillion global industry, connecting people and cultures around the world. In an increasingly globalized landscape, countries increasingly rely on clothing to convey national identity, pride and even political messages.

As such, diplomats must remain conscious of their wardrobes and the message they send, lest they find themselves criticized or judged by the public for what they wear.

Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, led a discussion on these issues and more at an event titled “Diplomacy X Design” sponsored by the Meridian International Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on Nov 16. Meredith Koop, Michelle Obama’s stylist, Hildy Kuryk, a public relations executive, and Indira Gumarova, wife of the Czech ambassador and a fashion consultant, joined Givhan to talk about how diplomacy connects with design.

Before the discussion, guests were invited to tour the “Rodarte” exhibition at the museum. It was a fitting backdrop for the conversation, presenting galleries of luxury dresses from the design sister team of Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Their brand, Rodarte, mixes fashion with femininity, showcasing how clothing makes a powerful statement (also see “Fashion Forward NMWA Brings Rodarte Dresses and Designs from Catwalk to Nation’s Capital” in the February 2019 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Fashion Diplomacy
Rodarte’s spring/summer 2018 collection is seen above. The American fashion house is the feature of an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and served as the backdrop for a discussion on design and diplomacy on Nov. 16. Photo: Rodarte / © Autumn de Wilde

Panelists began by trying to conceptualize and define how fashion connects with diplomacy. Koop said there must be an intention and strategy, and that clothes are meaningless without a message behind them. Kuryk agreed, but warned that sometimes intentions can be misinterpreted.

“I think it’s about intention behind what signal we are sending with what we are wearing,” Kuryk said. “In this day and age, I think we have to be very careful … about what people are perceiving of us.”

Gumarova added that diplomacy and fashion both contain goals, means and a delivery. She also mentioned the struggles some countries face trying to overcome inherent prejudice and stereotypes when it comes to design, with traditional attire often overlooked by the mainstream fashion industry.

Kuryk said fashion has become a form of protest because of the evolution of media. She explained how designer Kerby Jean-Raymond illustrated his views on Black Lives Matter and police brutality through his Pyer Moss label. Jean-Raymond tried to engage people politically through fashion, she noted.

“Because of the instantaneous nature of the internet and social media, brands have the ability to express things that they never did before, and reach audiences that may never even wear their clothes,” Kuryk said.

Givhan asked if this understanding of a brand puts a burden on the wearer. She said a deeper form of engagement can be turned into a surface glance of “I tweeted about it so I’ve done my duty; I wore this t-shirt.”

Koop said that any time consumers spend money on something, they are engaging with the brand. She sees both sides of the argument, in that political fashion can both make a movement accessible and stronger, but also water it down.

Fashion Diplomacy
Dresses from the spring/summer 2018 collection of Rodarte is seen above. Photo: Rodarte / © Greg Kessler/Kessler Studio

Comparing a bag of Doritos to kale salad, Koop said, “You might enjoy that little hit you get off it, but ultimately it doesn’t provide nourishment.”

However, Koop pointed out that average buyers don’t have to concern themselves with clothing choices as much as public figures do. Gumarova noted that celebrities and first ladies are trendsetters who often struggle to retain a sense of individuality without being scrutinized for their appearance.

Givhan agreed that the clothing first ladies in particular choose to wear, if used well, can be an extraordinary communication tool. She mentioned Melania Trump’s decision to wear the “I really don’t care, do you?” jacket as a matter of strategy and intent. The jacket grabbed attention, but was it an effective communication strategy?

“I haven’t seen much evidence of Melania Trump having a real, clear message behind her tenure of first lady, thus far,” said Koop. “I hesitate to analyze it because I feel like it gives it too much weight.”

Koop said she did find the jacket distasteful, but that others might have enjoyed the message Trump was intending to send to her husband and his immigration crackdown, although it could just as easily be seen as a comment that she didn’t care what his detractors think. Kuryk said that without context, the jacket was ambiguous and essentially meaningless.

“There was nothing larger to feed it into, just a lot of noise,” Kuryk said. “People took what they wanted out of it.”

Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of Meridian International Center, opened the Q&A session with a question on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s fashion choices during his visit to India. Trudeau wore ornate traditional Indian attire during his stay, sparking a media backlash, with some claiming cultural appropriation.

Gumarova said she had a problem with Trudeau wearing the dress because she viewed it as a cheap public relations trick. Koop said Trudeau’s clothes presented a tricky dilemma and that cultural appropriation is a living, breathing entity that can change from one second to the next. She stressed the most important part of diplomacy and dress is communication with people who live in the country with which you’re engaging.

One audience member suggested that instead of going “full Trudeau,” diplomats can wear the color of the country as a gesture of respect.

Another audience member raised the issue of consumers feeling the weight of societal pressure when it comes to deciding what clothes to purchase. For example, if a designer comes out with negative views about certain races, that might prevent many from buying that brand.

The panel agreed, with Gumarova saying the most important thing in diplomacy is to avoid sending the wrong message.

Ambassador of Kosovo Vlora Çitaku offered her own insights on dressing as a diplomat. She said elaborate dresses can be a distraction.

“[I]f you have a speech to deliver or a visit to go to, use less, minimalist,” Çitaku said. “I think we are making it more complicated than it is. If you really want to convey a message, wear a simple dress and convey your message by words.”

Koop said that Çitaku was hitting on the idea that fashion should not be a part of the conversation — that words are enough. Givhan agreed, but added that clothes can underscore a message, either heightening its effectiveness or negating it.

“Unless you completely remove the video and you are delivering a radio address, we are a visual people,” Givhan said. “We will respond to what we see.” 

David Jahng is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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