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The intersection of fashion and diplomacy: Can a dress ever just be a dress?

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - Intentionally or unintentionally, clothing is a form of communication.

Nowhere is this more important than in politics, where a clothing choice has the power to either mirror a message or distract from it, and where — regardless of the intent behind a fashion choice — the interpretation is often entirely in the hands of the public.

"What you wear can send a message, and you can think about that or choose not to think about that."
Hildy Kuryk, founder of Artemis Strategies and former executive director of communications at Vogue

When Hillary Clinton stepped out to make her concession speech after the 2016 presidential election wearing a purple Ralph Lauren suit, the message of national unity was clear.

Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton
Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton sported matching purple outfits, a symbol of unity for both red and blue voters, as Hillary Clinton conceded her defeat to Republican Donald Trump after the hard-fought 2016 presidential election. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

But when first lady Melania Trump wore a jacket that read “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” on her way to visit detained migrant children in Texas, the message wasn’t so easy to decipher. Was it an accidental misstep or a calculated choice? The absence of an immediate official statement, and the subsequent denial of any deliberate message, allowed for conjecture to fill in the meaning. By the time the first lady said the jacket's message was aimed at the media, many other theories had already taken root.

Melania Trump
First lady Melania Trump arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., wearing a jacket that reads “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” after visiting a children's detention center in McAllen, Texas. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“What you wear can send a message, and you can think about that or choose not to think about that,” Hildy Kuryk, founder of Artemis Strategies and former executive director of communications at Vogue, told Circa. “I wore this white dress today. Did I wear it because I really liked it? Or because it’s the color (of) women’s suffrage?”

Kuryk joined other experts at a recent Diplomacy X Design event, hosted by Meridian International Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., to explore the theme of fashion as a political symbol.

The event’s panel discussion, moderated by Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan, featured Meredith Koop, stylist for former first lady Michelle Obama, as well as Indira Gumarova, a fashion consultant and diplomat, and Kuryk.

As experts debated the near impossibility of a public wardrobe without a political message, an overarching question emerged: On the global stage, can a dress ever just be a dress?

Diplomacy or dissent?

A world leader seeking to present a policy or proposal is judged first by how she presents herself.

And even the most basic observation (or neglect) of a cultural custom can reflect either diplomacy or dissent.

When touring the Middle East in 2007, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was never without a scarf accessory around her neck. When the setting called for a more conservative look, Pelosi used the scarf as a head covering.

 PELOSI SCARVES
Then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is welcomed by Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, the head of Saudi consultative council and Imam of Mecca's great mosque, during her visit to the Saudi council, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 5, 2007. Pelosi kept a diplomatic fashion accessory with her throughout her recent Mideast tour, an array of colorful scarves, draped around her neck but ready to be pulled over her hair when Islamic custom required. (AMR NABIL/AP)

Conversely, French politician Marine Le Pen refused to wear a headscarf for her scheduled meeting with Lebanon’s Grand Mufti in 2017, instead canceling the meeting and declaring, “I will not cover myself up.”

Marine Le Pen
French far-right politician Marine Le Pen speaks during a press conference, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Le Pen refused to go into a meeting with Lebanon's Grand Sunni Muslim Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian after his aides asked her to wear a headscarf. Instead, she walked to her car and left. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Gumarova, born in Uzbekistan and married to Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek, says she carefully considers the customs where she is going before packing for the trip.

“I really do research, I Google the country, and I Google the [local] designers,” Gumarova told Circa. “And I Google the colors. Because in some countries they don’t like [certain] colors. For example, in Malaysia, yellow is for the kings.”

But it’s not just about what not to wear.

Gumarova sees clothing as a tool.

“It’s like a language,” Gumarova said. “Everything [you wear] is talking through you, and you don’t have to say a word.”

Fashion diplomacy sometimes means wearing a designer from the country being visited.

Prince William, Duchess of Cambridge
Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, sported a dress by Indian-born American designer Naeem Khan as she visited the Taj Mahal in Agra, India in 2016. (MONEY SHARMA/AP)

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is well-practiced in the art of fashion as a cultural connection.

On her visit to Stockholm, the duchess wore Scandinavian brands, like Fjallraven, throughout the trip. And on her visit across India, she wore Indian designers, like Anita Dongre and Naeem Khan.

India Royal Visit
The Duchess of Cambridge wore a dress by Indian designer Anita Dongre to the Banganga Water Tank in Mumbai, India in 2016. (Rajanish Kakade/AP)

“I think it’s smart. And I think it’s warm and it’s welcoming,” said Kuryk. “When you go to someone’s house, you bring something you know they’d like, right?”

Accessibility & national identity

Former first lady Michelle Obama made her fashion message clear on Inauguration Day in 2009, when her fashion choices embodied a theme that would carry through her husband’s two terms in office.

Obama Inauguration
President Barack Obama and then-first lady Michelle Obama walk the inaugural parade route in Washington, Jan. 20, 2009. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

She wore J. Crew gloves and Jimmy Choo pumps, mixing affordable, off-the-rack pieces with luxury brands, a gesture of unity with the average American.

“J. Crew at the inauguration in 2009, I mean, it was an incredible moment for that brand and for American fashion,” said Kuryk. “Because here was the first lady of the United States wearing pieces of clothing that, more than not, everyday Americans could afford, or could find. And that was shattering to American fashion, I think, and really equalizing.”

At the inaugural ball in 2009, Obama introduced what would become another of her fashion standards: championing little-known U.S. designers. Although Jason Wu was unknown when Obama stepped out in his white gown in 2009, by the time she celebrated at the 2013 inaugural ball in a red Jason Wu design, he was a household name.

The double standard

Fashion may seem like the least important part of a public figure’s job.

A man could likely get away with wearing the same suit for several consecutive meetings, or — as evidenced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — a hoodie could be considered appropriate meeting attire for a male boss. The only fashion commentary hurled at a president is likely to be about his tie color choice as it aligns with his political party.

A woman, meanwhile, might hope that donning a simple dress would allow her words to speak for themselves. But from Hollywood awards shows to diplomatic meetings, news coverage of high-profile female figures often focuses heavily on fashion choices.

“I think that there’s always been a very interesting relationship between female leaders and fashion,” said Kuryk. “That sometimes, I think, can smack of a double standard a bit. … I don’t think that what a woman wears has to be commented on in their ability to do their job.”

Theresa May's shoes, for example, were much talked about after the British prime minister’s admission that her flashy footwear collection was the “greatest love” of her life. But later, on the British TV show “Good Morning Britain,” May mused, “It is interesting that people focus on my shoes. I don’t think they focus on Philip Hammond’s or Boris Johnson’s in quite the same way.”

Belgium EU Summit
The shoes of British Prime Minister Theresa May prior to a group photo at an Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels in 2017. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Ethical manufacturing and sustainability

The fashion industry itself is seeing politically driven change.

As a $2.4 trillion global industry — and one the United Nations recently identified as one of the world’s biggest polluters — fashion has a far-reaching impact that goes beyond the runway.

And as consumers become increasingly concerned with political issues from sustainability to fair labor laws, major fashion houses are being held accountable for their impact like never before.

“Consumers more than ever are demanding that the companies they spend their time and money with have values,” said Kuryk. “People want to know what the brands they care about stand for.”

Kuryk sees Toms and Warby Parker as two prime examples of brands that managed to center their business models around causes that were authentically important to the founders.

“They believed from their beginning that they could disrupt a certain industry, make it easier for consumers, cheaper for consumers,” said Kuryk. “But they also knew that they wanted to give back at the same time. And they bred it into the DNA of their brand.”

On The Money Try Before You Buy
Warby Parker took on the eyewear market with try-before-you-buy options, and low-cost alternatives to its pricier competition. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

But for those brands that aren’t founded under an activist-approved mission statement, consumers are still able to wield influence.

The fur-free movement, for instance, began among activists, but launched an industry-wide movement.

Gucci and Michael Kors pledged to go fur-free in 2018, joining luxury labels like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, which had already opted out of using fur in their products.

Britain London Fashion Week Anti-Fur Protest
Animal rights activists staged a protest against fur-use before the Burberry fashion show at London Fashion Week in London on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (Vianney Le Caer/Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

This year also saw another first when all participants in London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2019 opted to go fur-free. The British Fashion Council announced that the move was entirely voluntary on the part of individual fashion houses.

It was just one example of how product and ethics-driven consumers could themselves influence the product.

"Consumers more than ever are demanding that the companies they spend their time and money with have values."
Hildy Kuryk, founder of Artemis Strategies and former executive director of communications at Vogue

Last summer, Burberry was called out for burning millions in unsold merchandise to maintain exclusivity, a still-common practice among luxury fashion houses. With about $36 million worth of Burberry products destroyed over a year, and around $116 million destroyed over five years, consumers demanded the British brand adopt less wasteful practices.

After the public outcry, Burberry vowed to stop destroying its leftover merchandise, putting power in the hands of not only Burberry shoppers, but also activists unlikely to become Burberry buyers.

"With Twitter, Facebook, social media, everyone can have an immediate reaction, and can then share that reaction with their circle, or their friends group, or the world ..."
Hildy Kuryk, founder of Artemis Strategies and former executive director of communications at Vogue

Part of this new wave of influence, Kuryk says, can be traced to social media’s ability to inflict instant karma.

“With Twitter, Facebook, social media, everyone can have an immediate reaction, and can then share that reaction with their circle, or their friends group, or the world, and it can get picked up. So, I think transparency is so important,” said Kuryk. “With Burberry, they were found out; there was a groundswell and then they changed their practice.”

Balanced fashion diplomacy

With the issues of sustainability, accessibility, and national identity almost inescapable in a wardrobe meant for the global stage, a balanced outfit seems near impossible.

But according to Kuryk, one classic example of an ideal dress for the global stage might just be Meghan Markle’s wedding gown. The Duchess of Sussex had her veil embroidered with the flowers of the Commonwealth, a nod to what was to become her new home country.

Britain Royal Wedding
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle leave after their May 2018 wedding ceremony. Markle wore a dress by British designer Clare Waight Keller, the artistic director of French luxury fashion house Givenchy. (Ben Birchhall/AP)

“She knocked it out of the park. She found the perfect way to weave the elements of her adopted country with the elements of her home country, and staying true to who she was,” said Kuryk. “That is fashion diplomacy.”

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