The Year of the Coat

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. 
-Coco Chanel

This week Pelosi, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, dared to attend a meeting with the President in order to get a legislative leg up on what is sure to be a smoking battleground once the new, democratic-led House of Representatives convene in 2019. Ostensibly, this was to be a meeting held in private during which all parties could attempt a budget compromise that would not result in a government shutdown, but for murky reasons was actually held in real time and in front of live cameras.

Depending on what side of the congressional aisle you imagine yourself sitting, drinking, and screaming “Move that ball, idiots!” (is that just me?), this could be seen as a brilliant move by the party in charge for exposing Pelosi and Schumer to be blood thirsty yet ineffective legislative sharks, or a terribly misguided attempt at transparency that backfired embarrassingly by someone who is, er...not a legislative shark. Debating the political ramifications of the event could, presumably, have kept pundits and the rest of us plebeians busy until after the New Year - after all, the juiciest political theater is likely months away, and all Pelosi and Schumer really had to do at this meeting was engage in noisy, pointed throat clearing about why both the Presidential budget and the threatened consequence of not passing it are maybe bad ideas.

All that policy wonking was thrown to the winds of fashion, however, once Pelosi exited the meeting wearing a decent pair of sunglasses and the now infamous red coat. The Twitterverse, online media outlets, and television pundits went insane for Pelosi’s fashion choice, deeming it ‘boss’,  calling the color ‘legit’, renaming the red ‘blood of my enemies’, and asserting that it was the perfect choice to compliment Pelosi’s ‘smirk’ as she and Schumer walked out of the meeting. For a few hours the internet tortured itself trying to discover the designer (is it new Herrera? Lauren? Someone up and coming?! Tell us or we’ll shred our own unworthy jackets in protest!!!) before the altogether underwhelming reveal that it is an old MaxMara coat from 2013.

Journalists were quick to write pieces ascribing Pelosi’s fashion choice to her political prowess, i.e. an excellent example of the non-verbal “fuck you I win” that she seemed to be using to underscore the way she had, minutes earlier, quite verbally tongue lashed the White House on the topic of a pending  “Trump” shutdown. The idea that Pelosi is savvy enough about both politics and fashion to very deliberately choose a red coat from her closet that has done its duty before at Obama’s 2013 inauguration is not outlandish. It is the opinion of many people in retail and the fashion industry that clothing and personal presentation is one of the most impactful ways to communicate intent, and it has historically been used very effectively to that end. If that sounds outlandish, consider how various uniforms signify importance to the population on any given day when dealing with fire fighters, traffic cops, priests, or nuns...the effect tends to be one of immediate deference on the part of those dressed as civilians. The navy and polished brass on a police officer says to speak meekly and only when spoken to, because you are in trouble. The black cossack of a Jesuit results in hushed tones and swallowed curse words among even the most vile heretic, the one who only knows about priests from late night movies that feature a lot of vomiting, because of the power imbued in the black of the robe and iconic square white of the collar, power that can save you from actual demons.

In that sense, it is somewhat pleasing to have internet journalism try to broadly acknowledge a fact that those of us passionate about apparel have argued for our entire lives, which is that clothing DOES matter, and it can be used effectively as a means to an end when it’s in hands that know enough about how different fits, colors, and shapes affect the human brain. Indeed, an optimist might argue that there seems to be a bit of an American public reckoning in the last part of this foul decade about the power of clothing and the messages we send when that power is harnessed, if the uproar over Hillary Clinton’s bland pantsuits, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez’s ‘girl who struggles’ black jacket, and Melania Trump’s ill advised Zara coat are any indication. Although it means we have to endure people like Eddie Scarry, a political journalist lacking any professional textile experience who nonetheless felt empowered in his assumptions regarding the expense of Ocasio-Cortez’s outerwear, at least people who care about clothing can exhale triumphantly that the rest of the world has caught on to how powerful our personal textile choices can be. Even Melania Trump eventually admitted that her Zara coat, which literally spelled out her attitude on her back in faux graffiti, was intended to send a message, perplexing though it may have been given the supposed target of left leaning media. For myself, I actually had a lot of empathy for the First Lady when it came to that jacket, having been lured into a trash purchase at Zara myself multiple times by the promise of slashed prices and cheesy text.  Of course journalists and the internet pearl clutched and raged over it, many of whom, like Scarry, have little to no experience with fashion metrics of any kind, while those of us in the know and guilty of owning questionable garments with cheap text ourselves simply side-eyed each other and whispered words that underscore the death of a trend…”she bought that on sale.”

The problem, of course, is the demographic these zeitgeisty moments tend to target, and how very, very old and tired that targeting is. Based on the breathless journalism following the televised meeting, one might think Pelosi stormed in on her own hobnail boots, whipped the President in the face with a riding crop, called on her seconds, then stormed out again covered in rivulets of his blood and her ‘smirk’. Wasn’t the Senate Minority Leader, someone who currently has more power than Pelosi, also present? And a Vice President? Or did Pelosi’s war garb act on its own, a red coat turned mystifyingly into the muscle-laden battle armor count Dracula donned in the Coppola film that was ALMOST as dramatic as this catty meeting of political minds?

It turns out that if you look hard enough at some of the coverage, Schumer at least had something to do with the meeting, though from my estimation his contribution amounted to a constipated grimace at the beginning and a goblin grin of delight at the end of the conversation eerily similar to the one my geriatric aunt wears when they screw up her order at Starbucks and they have to give her a free drink. Even his peevish repetition of “ well WE don’t want a shutdown” was the perfect echo of every barista’s favorite phrase“ I’m not paying for something I didn’t order”.  It is uncanny how quickly a political meeting about funding in one of the richest countries in existence devolved into that first hour of the morning when all the retiree mall walkers decide they have to try the Unicorn Frappacino but do not want any whipped cream goddammit they told you.

The presence of the Vice President has been harder to ascertain through any medium other than video, as he spends the entire meeting doing the most dead on impression of a recently unearthed, antique ventriloquist dummy I have ever seen. If not for the occasional head swivel when words became particularly heated amongst the various old people, I would not believe the V.P. had a circulatory system, much less the pulse needed to keep one running - only an inanimate object, after all, would continue to wear that tie. I mean. That. Tie.

It is that tie on our Vice President that perfectly encapsulates my umbrage here, or rather, the lack of conversation around the tie. It was easily one of the most hideous things in the room - a disturbing metric to hit, surely - with stripes of navy seeming to pulsate on an oily, football field expanse of red satin. Despite its impressive ugliness, no think pieces have been written about this tie quietly expressing the V.P’s utter disdain for the proceedings, or his shrewdness in choosing such a wide tie to express the sheer breadth of his disapproval of the Democratic opposition. Did he know what he was doing when he picked that tie to adorn his tree trunk neck for this televised meeting, thus using those navy stripes to signify jail time to his opponents? Was his tie a subtle, visual echo of the ‘lock her up’ chant evoked with glee at Republican rallies? What was going through our Vice President’s mind when he chose this tie?!

I do not have answers to these questions, because the questions have not been asked. No journalist has asked about the Vice Presidential tie, no media personality has commented on the Presidential preference for the same kind of wide, tomato red atrocity around his neck, just as no think pieces have been written regarding Schumer’s penchant for boxy black overcoats and eyewear that sits on the tip of his nose, giving him the countenance of a nebbish bookie for organized crime, one who is probably skimming off the top of every bank account he manages. Were one to attempt writing such a piece or consistently editorialize the sartorial choices the esteemed men in our government make, I suspect the writing would be never-ending. The fit of the President’s suits alone would give me five thousand words, easily, and at least a quarter of those would be curses. The rest of the words would be a somber incantation of the words ‘slim fit’ over and over again. (For the love of the true gods, could someone tell the men in U.S. government that a thing called ‘slim fit’ exists?!)

Inundated with video and photos and soundbites of this meeting, and the ensuing commentary, reminded me of an exchange I had on a work trip once, not long ago, in a hotel lobby, sandwiched among strangers on a velour couch and enduring amateur piano jazz while we waited for rooms. I got to talking with a woman next to me in town for a dull tech conference, who brightened when she discovered that I worked in fashion and began drilling me on appropriate interview garb, where to find a specific blouse, etc. We were joined by a couple on vacation who also worked in tech, and this new woman was also mining me for garment information, specifically where she could get pants with enough pockets to hold her necessary gadgets that would still look fashionable.  Her husband broke in at some point to inform us that he had no idea what we were talking about, and was baffled as to why anyone would care so much about how they dressed for work or an interview. It was the same sort of riff I’ve heard throughout my career, the one with a barely hidden subtext that states ‘You and your chosen profession are shallow and stupid.’ When I inquired as to what he would expect an interviewee at his company to be dressed in, he responded that they would be suspect of anybody “too dressed up” because they would look like the were trying too hard in an attempt to cover some intellectual or professional deficiency. I bit my tongue and drew blood (Pelosi coat colored blood!!) as I surveyed the man’s cornflower blue denim, wrinkled t-shirt, worn sneakers, and corporate logo windbreaker, resisting the urge to ask “And how has that been working out for you?” while picking him up bodily and throwing him across the room. Instead, I murmured something noncommittal and exchanged a look with my initial couch mate as he, mercifully, left with his wife for a dinner reservation. One for which I could safely assume he would not be changing outfits.

I thought of this fellow again, watching the reaction to Pelosi’s coat and the non-reaction to the clothing of every other participant in that meeting. In many ways, the events of the week confirmed the answer to the question I wished I had the temerity to ask him in that lobby, while resisting the urge to inflict violence. How is it working out for him, to care so little about his clothing or his visual presentation? Well, it’s working out just fine for all of them, clearly. Certainly it hasn’t hurt any of the men working the cameras with Pelosi, with their glistening ties drooped between legs all spread remarkably wide as they leaned forward, bunching their ill-fitting trousers around the hip like cloth diapers on a toddler. No adorable memes involving nappies have circulated about these men, and no screeching headlines about how their blood red neck gear is a declaration of war. They continue to move and thrive, comfortable with the reality that not only do they not know about fashion or it’s impact, but they don’t have to care that they don’t know. They don’t have to, as long as women like Pelosi, like Clinton, like Melania, and like Ocasio-Cortez are around to draw the ire and judgement of people like Eddie Scarry, people who don’t care about fashion until it’s on a woman’s body, and then seem to care an inordinate amount.

I’m being honest when I say I don’t really know what to do about this. Perhaps we would reach true sartorial equilibrium if those of us in the apparel realm focused a critical eye more regularly to what everyone is wearing, not just what, ahem, the women put on their bodies. What about lengthy op-eds describing the terrible cut of our President’s suits, our V.P’s ties, and our congressmen’s hairlines? (I’ll give you a hint, they are all of those things, bad.) Will that tip the cultural seesaw to a straighter line, one that continues to acknowledge the power of fashion while simultaneously holding everyone accountable, equally, to that power?

I doubt it highly after reading the post mortems on any political event, wherein people seem to take men in government more at their word than they do their appearance. And who could blame them? If we took their appearance as the major indicator of worth, we’d all be in the midst of emergency elections for the better part of every year. (Those ties. Those suits. Jesus.)  It seems hardly to matter, just as the actual words out of Pelosi’s mouth seemed to matter so much less to the internet, to the President, and to the world, than the cut and color of her nice, but ultimately unremarkable coat. This is a shame, because even though it was a good coat, the words that came out of her mouth got straight to the point and directly revealed everything that the journalistic hand wringing over her style choices tried to imbue into her intent. When our President intimated, while wearing a tie that looked like the slashed artery of a giant pig, that she was stunting for votes to get to Speaker of the House, Pelosi replied, “Don’t characterize the strength I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.”

Yes, I want to say to these government men, and to the man in the hotel lobby. Oh, please don’t. Don’t try to characterize our strength.

I assure you, you’re not dressed for it.