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The heels in question. (Washington Post photo illustration; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty; iStock)

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It’s hard to steal the spotlight from President Trump, but the first lady managed it this week when she stepped out from the White House in a pair of sleek, black pumps. This wouldn’t have been a notable choice for the typically glamorous Melania Trump, had she and her husband not been en route to Texas to survey the damage wreaked by Hurricane Harvey.

Social media was swift to criticize and mock her choice of footwear for the occasion.

All the outrage raised the obvious, uncomfortable question: Was it sexist to criticize Melania’s choice to wear heels? After all, it’s now become faux pas to criticize the appearance of a woman in power, thanks to years of condemning the practice. A man wouldn’t be judged the same way, the argument goes. But Trump’s heels struck a nerve with the progressive corners of the Internet that normally shun such critiques.

Yes, women in politics should not be held to a different standard than men. But as the role of first lady is a wholly symbolic one, everything a woman in that position dons and does is inherently loaded with symbolism, including her attire. As we saw with Michelle Obama, clothing choices are often meant to send messages about reliability, convey strength or health, or to underscore an allegiance with a foreign ally.

Obama famously faced endless criticism for her appearance starting with her very first official portrait, with some thinking her bare arms were too informal or inappropriate for the winter season.

But the backlash to Trump’s heels was not so much about gender as it was about class.

Flying into a disaster zone, wearing what appeared to be Manolo Blahnik pumps that convey that you will definitely not be sharing in anyone’s pain or discomfort that day, sends the absolute wrong message. As The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan noted, the ensemble “suggested that Trump is the kind of woman who refuses to pretend that her feet will, at any point, ever be immersed in cold, muddy, bacteria-infested Texas water. She is the kind of woman who may listen empathetically to your pain, but she knows that you know that she is not going to experience it.”

As her defenders noted, Trump changed her shoes for her arrival in Texas, switching into a pair of pristine white sneakers. This was a far more appropriate choice for walking around a disaster site, and probably would have saved Trump a good deal of grief had she worn them from the start. But it is again noteworthy that those glistening Adidas aren’t meant to get dirty, and observers know they probably won’t.


Melania Trump changed into sneakers to take part in a briefing on Harvey relief efforts on Aug. 29 in Corpus Christi, Tex. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Additionally, Trump wore the heels not because they were practical, but because she would be photographed outside the White House as she departed for Texas. Instead of understanding that her attire would signal the tone of the visit and ostensibly assure that “help was on the way,” she instead sought to look attractive for the cameras.

The heels imply to Trump’s watchers that she wasn’t thinking about others, but rather, that her primary concern was herself. Perched atop her pumps, she becomes a caricature of the one percent.

It underscored the shallowness that many perceived from the visit. The Trumps didn’t actually tour any true disaster sites or reportedly meet with victims, and the president’s “rally” in Corpus Christie was actually pretty removed from anyone who lived there.

As a former model, Trump should understand the power of clothing and the significance with which she can imbue them. She should understand that context is important with fashion, and that in era of social media, what she wears and how she wears it will be dissected within a matter of minutes.

In a statement, a spokesman for Trump said, “It’s sad that we have an active and ongoing natural disaster in Texas, and people are worried about her shoes.”

But the fact that there is an active an ongoing disaster in Texas is precisely why it’s worth talking about the shoes. When you contrast the images of Texans wet, bedraggled, and struggling to save a few of their most precious possessions with a first lady that’s heading into the same situation wearing a pair of ostentatious, impractical heels, it’s not a good look.

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