THE GIST OF THE DEBATE
To save you from wading through the same things I did to get here, let me condense. In essence, the First Lady's detractors (a lot of Twitter-users) felt that her footwear struck a wrong note. To them it was out-of-touch with the reality of flood survivors, and thus showed that the First Lady didn't care about flood survivors, only photoshoots.
Interestingly, Robin Givhan, the Washington Post fashion critic writing on the topic, doesn't criticize Melania Trump for failure to care, only failure to pretend to care! Even when Mrs. Trump switched to sneakers to get off the plane in Corpus Christi, Givhan still felt that "the chance to tell an uninterrupted narrative of care and concern had already been missed." So it's about the narrative, not the First Lady's actual heart.
Meanwhile the critics of the critics say that shoes are trivial, that that people focusing on them are allowing themselves to be distracted from world news of real import. (They usually add parenthetically that they agree the stilettos were awful, but let's have a sense of perspective about it!) I think this group has a point and misses the point at the same time... people do latch onto the trivial, but that's because it is within their grasp. Few people know how to deal with dictators wielding nuclear missiles, but everyone knows how to shame a woman for her clothing choices.
SPEAKING OF CLOTHING CHOICES
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar... and sometimes it's not. To critics, Melania's stilettos are not just stilettos; they're symbols of her privilege, proof of her being out of touch with ordinary people, and potent signifiers that she thinks she's above the rest of us. But is any of that true? What do the shoes mean to her? Off the top of my head, I can think of several other reasons she might wear expensive and uncomfortable shoes:
WHO GETS TO DEFINE THE MEANING OF CLOTHES?
I'm reminded of a scene in the 2002 TV movie Bertie and Elizabeth, where the Royal couple is visiting bombed out sections of London during WWII. Queen Elizabeth wears a cattleya-colored dress, quite different from the wartime drabness of the people around her. "Dressed for a garden party," her husband comments, and she replies that it's to "keep them smiling--bright colors." And yes, she also wears high heels to pick her way through rubble... that's what all women wear back then. She also wears pearls, because that's what the Queen of England wears. One common man says to her: "You put on yer best clothes, then, didn't ya?" She answers: "Well, you'd put on your best clothes if you came and saw me, wouldn't you!" Of course he would, because it's a sign of respect to dress up when visiting people. Smiles all around.
In that scene, the meaning of the clothing was agreed by all: the queen honored her people by dressing up for them, and they took her glad rags as a sign of her cheerful and uplifting spirit. But they wanted to like her, so they were disposed toward the most favorable interpretation. What if, though, instead of beloved Queen Elizabeth she had been Wallis Simpson, the foreign hussy interloper? People may have derided her hoity-toity dress and la-di-da pearls, just because they wanted to find fault. Worse yet if she meant it as respect and they took it as contempt. ("Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood!")
OTHER FIRST LADIES
Several years ago, my brother and I visited the Shoe Museum of Temple University's School of Podiatric Medicine. (It's well worth a visit, if you're ever in town! The lady who showed us around was interesting and knowledgeable, and took her cues from our interests when pulling out items from their collection. For me, she took out some Laplandish fur boots that had belonged to a child and let me feel the lingering impressions of toes in the fur... for my brother, who was interested in injection molding, she found a pair of plastic shoes from Korea which had been pliable when made but which were now brittle.)
Our tour guide showed us a photograph of six First Ladies walking together, all captured mid-stride in high heels. (You can find the picture if you do an image search for "First Ladies Attend Reagan Library Dedication". It belongs to Getty Images, and I am not sure whether using it here counts as Fair Use and therefore free, so I'm not posting it.) To me, no connoisseur of shoes, their shoes all looked the same, but she enthusiastically detailed the subtle differences between dowdy pumps and stylish ones, and talked about how each style suited its wearer.
We could argue all day about what Melania Trump's stilettos mean, but there's no doubt that they suit her! Perhaps she doesn't feel like herself in flats.
FORGET THE MEANING OF SHOES... WHAT'S THE MEANING OF ALL THIS CRITICISM?
I'm tired of watching as women in the public eye get slammed for what they wear, no matter whether they're doing good things or bad, saying good things or bad. Yes, getting dressed is also an action and a message, but it's about self-hood. Since clothing is such a personal expression--an outgrowth of the self, a manifestation of the mind and personality onto the body and the world--telling someone their clothes are wrong is tantamount to telling them they are not okay as they are inside. ("Long haired hippie people need not apply!") And while sometimes we need to observe dress codes (funerals, for instance), we don't need to constantly be harping on each other's clothes, nit-picking every choice, and assigning elaborate mind-game interpretations to every detail. We could, instead, be gentle and loving with each other. We could even go so far as to focus on things of real import.
I believe we're talking now about a spiritual sickness: fallen humanity wants to devalue and control each other. We devalue women by reducing them to their appearance, and try to control them by making them feel like they can't even get that right. It's uncharity when we can't even let a person get dressed in the morning and do her duty without saying how unfit she is because of her shoes! That's no way to treat a fellow child of God.
If you tell me my ideas are wrong, that's an answerable critique. Let's talk about ideas. If you say my actions are wrong, well, maybe they are; let's talk. But if you tell me that who I am is wrong, that's shame, and Satan is the author of shame.
I don't want to be Satan's tool or ally.
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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