First lady Melania Trump stepped out in Sicily on Friday wearing a Dolce & Gabbana floral coat with multicolored silk flowers that retails for $51,500. No one was more excited about this than designer Stefano Gabbana, who lauded the occasion on his personal Instagram with a flurry of heart emoji. Others on social media wondered what exactly could possibly make a coat worth so much money. And, of course, there was the how-dare-she contingent who contrasted the costly coat with her husband’s health-care bill, which is estimated to strip 23 million people of their medical insurance by 2026: The lady wears Dolce while the middle class implodes.
The head-shaking and tsk-tsking over Melania Trump’s coat calls to mind the outrage and indignation that erupted in 2009 when Michelle Obama wore $540 Lanvin sneakers to a Washington food bank. There’s a big price gap between a pair of designer sneakers and a coat that costs as much as a house in some parts of the country, but the fundamental point is the same: fashion shame.
Clothes can be deeply symbolic. And Trump’s choice of Dolce & Gabbana — an Italian brand that has been deeply inspired by Sicilian culture — for a trip to Sicily makes sense. Gabbana also has been quite vocal and enthusiastic in his willingness to associate his brand with the first lady, something many designers have not been comfortable doing because of her husband’s policies and temperament. Trump has worn the label multiple times on her inaugural foreign trip.
And frankly, the floral coat is beautiful.
The focus on the cost of designer fashion, whether sneakers or silk coats, is not so much about questioning whether a garment is too expensive, but about questioning the intrinsic value of fashion itself. There’s a presumption that fashion’s worth should be calculated only in terms of its raw materials and labor. Instead, creativity, artistry, beauty, status, delight, individuality and a host of other intangible notions should be tallied as well. After all, people tend to understand that the value of a car is not just the cost of fiberglass, metal and the hourly wage of the folks who assembled it. The value of a multi-course fine-dining experience is not simply the grocery bill.
President Trump campaigned on a promise to speak for the working class and to represent those who feel that financial advancement has eluded them. And more broadly, there’s a belief that leaders of all stripes should display empathy for the less fortunate. Fancy apartments, expensive cars, private clubs and designer clothes can easily wall a person off from those who struggle to buy groceries every week.
But they also can serve as a reminder of one’s good fortune and subsequent responsibility to society. Noblesse oblige and all. Fashion is no greater indication of being divorced from life’s hardships than any other benefit of wealth. And it’s often glorious evidence of life’s beauty. Clothes aren’t cruel or uncaring. That’s left to the people who wear them.