The president embraces the pocket square. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Team Trump believes in the power of image. The new president believes that a single photograph, re-tweeted ad nauseam, can form the basis of a narrative. He believes the actors in his White House drama should look the part, whether patriotic or powerful. Fashion is costuming.
In a striking case of character assassination by tailoring, Sean Spicer, the president’s freshly appointed press secretary, stepped to the podium over the weekend for a briefing that disappointed the president, The Washington Post later reported. He was wearing a gray pinstriped suit jacket that looked as though it had been hurriedly borrowed from a man twice his size. The sleeves were sloppy; the collar didn’t fit; the fabric looked cheap. The tie was poorly knotted. The shirt collar was so snug that his neck overflowed its boundaries. Spicer’s attire was not just a tad ill-fitting. It was distracting and sloppy. It epitomized the cliché style of the used-car salesman. Spicer’s clothes wholly undercut a message that was already riddled with falsehoods.
All that had changed by Monday afternoon. When Spicer returned to the press briefing room for a televised news conference, he was wearing a dark suit that fit. Not perfectly, but better. The tie was neat. He even had a white handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. It was a visual do-over, one that suggested he was better prepared, more focused, more dignified. By Tuesday, Spicer seemed to have found his sartorial groove.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in an ill-fitting suit, speaks in the press briefing room at the White House, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Two days later, a more polished Sean Spicer. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The Trump White House has been busy with optics over these past few days. The president still does not button his suit jacket and still wears his ties too long, but in recent days he has added a pocket square to his wardrobe — a nonessential flourish that gives his appearance more polish.
Even Stephen K. Bannon, sworn in as counselor to the president, seems to have publicly parted ways with his button-downs, polo shirts and field jackets. He is kitted up in a suit and tie — an Establishment look for the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, where white nationalist views flourished on his watch.
A scruffy Steven Bannon during the presidential campaign. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
A more polished Steven Bannon on day 3 in the White House. (Ron Sachs/Pool via Bloomberg)
Meanwhile, senior aide Kellyanne Conway has been using her high visibility to underscore patriotism of the loud, chanting variety: USA! USA! USA! As she routinely steps in front of cameras to defend, interpret and parse the president’s statements for the public, her fashion choices stand in lieu of having an American flag unfurl behind her. For the candlelight dinner with donors the day before the inauguration, she wore a one-shoulder, floor-sweeping gown in bright red.
Kellyanne Conway draped in patriotic red, at the Candlelight Dinner. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
For the Friday swearing-in, she chose a red, white and blue Gucci coat — a self-promotional victory lap in the guise of irrepressible patriotism. Indeed, Conway chose to wear an Italian brand on a day when the man she helped elect president was exhorting “Buy American. Hire American.” And then, when she appeared on Sunday morning television and thrust “alternative facts” into the cultural lexicon, she accessorized her ensemble with a glittering Ann Hand brooch that was inspired by the presidential seal, only this one including the Trump name. It was the kind of elaborate insignia that one might assume means something significant when, in fact, it is just sparkle.
Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway on Inauguration Day. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Conway, wearing her presidential brooch, prepares to appear on the Sunday morning show “Meet The Press.” (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Appearance matters, particularly at the White House. In some small way, the unruly, inartful, messy nature of politics is tempered by the dignity and solemnity of the place. There is something laudable about dressing in a manner that shows respect for everything that the White House represents. President George W. Bush understood that when he decreed jackets and ties for men entering the Oval Office. And in 2009, when President Obama loosened those rules, it caused a stir in official Washington. It also makes sense that if one wants to be taken seriously by a wildly diverse populace, it helps to embrace the universal style markers of professionalism, seriousness and authority. People also tend to stand up straighter and be more focused when their attire is more formal and elegant. And, in the case of Spicer, no one wants to regularly look at a guy whose public style is akin to a visual pummeling.
But image is always secondary to substance. It may briefly distract from a narrative or add to it. But surely, it can’t change it.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.