What’s in Maureen McDonnell’s Louis Vuitton handbag? Status, insecurity and maybe jail time.


Louis Vuitton and Oscar de la Renta, all evidence in the McDonnell trial. (Trial evidence.)

The designer goods at the center of the government’s case against former Virginia governor  Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were splayed out on tables in a most undignified way, photographed and entered into evidence. An Oscar de la Renta beaded shift was entombed in thin dry cleaner’s plastic. A Louis Vuitton trenchcoat lay limp on a hanger. A pearl-colored Louis Vuitton handbag look deflated and cheap. Separated from the woman who risked so much to get them, the clothes, with their sizes visible, looked like so many specimens of human weakness, social status and cultural detritus awaiting dissection. Poke at them and the insecurity flows out.

These are not garments that speak, in any profound way, to personal style. Mostly, they are rather bland: gray shift, black pumps, ivory blouse.  What little they have to say that is nuanced and distinctive is drowned out by their loud and and insistent declaration of self-importance.

At the highest levels, the fashion industry produces much that is breathtakingly original, beautiful and inspiring. But it also churns out those products that serve far more crass purposes. They equate money with inherent value.  They offer a flimsy validation of self-worth. They exploit the superficial belief that power, ambition and success can be encapsulated by few rarefied brands that have — through cynical marketing and false scarcity — come to signify that one has arrived. In a Virginia courthouse, such desperation was laid bare in the form of  glazed linen and soutache embroidery.

There are many reasons to admire Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear as established by designer Marc Jacobs and carried on by Nicolas Ghesquiere. The clothes can be lavish and fanciful, modern and luxurious. The handbags can be marvels of engineering. But that is not the Louis Vuitton represented in government exhibit 28A. That black trenchcoat is not an expression of inspired creativity or stately classicism. The handbag — exhibit 32A — is not insider or art-house or particularly deluxe  fashion. Together they are examples of big, bold blockbuster fashion — the sort that has bus loads of international tourists lined up on the Champs Elysee in Paris awaiting a chance to plunk down a credit card for a $3,000 bag, no matter what it looks like.

(Related: An interactive look at the McDonnell gifts list)

More conspicuous than the status purse, the trenchcoat is an overt advertisement for a brand that is universally recognized as a measure of prestige.  The woman wearing the trenchcoat serves as the company’s walking billboard. The relationship between the company and the consumer is not balanced. It isn’t symbiotic. It’s predatory. The product sells thanks, in large measure, to her insecurity and fretfulness, ambition and entitlement. The coat flatters no one.

The Oscar de la Renta, or more precisely government exhibit 31A , is a power play. As a craftsman, the designer has an exacting eye for creating clothes that can flatter both ingenues and dowagers. And in the political arena, his is the go-to label for women of standing. He has dressed multiple first ladies and countless aspiring ones. They entrust him with their image and he obliges with clothes that are feminine, vaguely regal, but not overdone. He understands institutional glamour; he plays at the national level.

State-level politicians and their spouses, typically working hard to empathize with constituents, steer clear of ostentatious clothes. The women often rely on local designers for their public wardrobe. But that philosophy falls by the wayside once they start thinking about loftier positions. They burnish their image and smooth away the rough and untidy edges. The women craft a more elegant — and more expensive — style.

When Laura Bush was a governor’s wife, she relied on a Texas-based designer for her wardrobe. As first lady, she leaned on de la Renta. When Hillary Clinton was a governor’s wife, she shopped the local Little Rock boutiques. As first lady, she shopped de la Renta’s showroom. Ann Romney, Cindy McCain, Nancy Reagan, Betty Ford and so on — they’ve all worn de la Renta’s clothes.

One can’t help but think Maureen McDonnell was shopping and dressing for the job she aspired to — one that comes with an office in the East Wing of the White House —  not the position she already had.

The clothes at the center of the McDonnell trial are not so extraordinary that they were worth the risk of prison time — but then what sort of frock would be? But Maureen McDonnell’s shopping spree had little to do with personal style or aesthetics.  The clothes are stump speech and fundraising pitch. They are braggadocio and mythology. Perhaps, they are even solace. Mostly, however, they’re simply sad.

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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