Fashion’s role in politics shifts depending on the person, with some coyly relaying messages through the designers or clothes they choose to wear, and others, like First Lady Jill Biden, choosing to stay mum on designers or brands.
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Jacqueline Kennedy was in the first camp, and used fashion as a tool to attract or deflect attention, while simultaneously setting fashion trends throughout her lifetime. On Friday, the White House Historical Society will host a dedication ceremony honoring Kennedy at the Decatur. It’s the first of two fashion-themed events coming to Washington, D.C. — the second is the First Fashion Gala, to be held in October.
Biden is expected at the White House Historical Society ceremony, which will dedicate a new garden with a Chas Fagan-designed sculpture to honor Kennedy’s legacy in restoring the White House and preserving Lafayette Square. Fagan deferred any comment Thursday until after the unveiling. Like it or not, Biden’s and Kennedy’s personal style are likely to be referenced in the news coverage or by designers’ representatives. Gabriela Hearst’s team, for example, clued in the media Thursday afternoon to Biden’s choice of a custom embroidery dress by the designer for an appearance at the Concordia Annual Summit.
Then, in an effort to highlight the power of fashion in the political sphere, the First Fashion Gala will be held on Oct. 12, to celebrate the work of designers who have suited up first ladies and first gentlemen from around the world. For security purposes and to avoid party-crashers, the location of the event will be revealed closer to the event. Ticket sales from the 350-person event will benefit the nonprofit Diplomacy and Fashion to help underprivileged students in the U.S. study fashion and design. The organization’s founder, Indira Gumarova, whose husband, Hynek Kmonicek, is the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, previously worked on a Manolo Blahnik shoes exhibition and a fashion show in the U.S. State Department building. Diplomacy and Fashion also collaborated with DC Events to develop a television miniseries about how former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s pins signaled diplomatic messages.
After thinking about how many first ladies there are across the globe, Gumarova said “there was no better place to start this gala,” than Washington, D.C., where there are more than 200 embassies. She started working on the project a year ago, and the work of designers who dressed first ladies, kings and queens from 35-plus countries will be featured.
“Diplomacy and Fashion is also the theme of the gala. Fashion is the silent language of diplomacy. It’s as powerful as a sign language. It speaks through mimics, gestures and visuals,” she said, adding that a sign language translator will open with a message that will then be highlighted with a fashion show categorized by geography. Organizers are still ironing out which designers will be in attendance.
Naeem Khan, whose designs were worn by Michelle Obama on about 28 occasions during her White House years, is providing two gowns for the event. The bipartisan event will also feature an Oscar de la Renta gown that Laura Bush donned in her role as first lady, and a dress that belonged to Edith Wilson, who wed the widowed Woodrow Wilson during his first term as president in 1915. “She was a fashionista. She started bringing French couture into America. She always dressed impeccably,” said Gumarova, who also has requests for borrowed dresses into Biden’s press team and the Kennedy family.
“Fashion in Washington, D.C., exists. It’s not like in New York, Milan or Paris. It’s just really according to protocol, [and is representative] of different countries, protocol and respect. It exists. It’s just different,” Gumarova said.
Fashion is “a silent language,” she said. “At first, you see people and then they speak. Their dress speaks first and then they give a message. But the message should definitely support the way they dress. If you dress inappropriately, that definitely creates controversy, like Melania Trump’s jacket with ‘I really don’t care, do u?‘ [that she wore in 2018 to visit migrant children in a Texas detention center].”
Gumarova also mentioned how first ladies are known to give interviews to Vogue magazine, even if they may not directly address fashion in their comments. Biden has appeared on the cover of Vogue, as has her Ukrainian counterpart Olena Zelenska more recently, to much controversy. Referring to first ladies’ messaging through fashion, Gumarova said, “They definitely use it and it has been used for more than a century by Edith Wilson. It continues even now and every country in the world uses it.”
Ultimately, Fashion and Diplomacy aims to develop curriculum at colleges and universities about its namesake subject. Talks are underway with Marymount College, according to Gumarova.
As an advocate for sustainable fashion, Diplomacy and Fashion educates emerging diplomats and designers about the role of fashion in diplomacy, and promotes designers. It also aims to inform and celebrate different cultures, as well as the customary gifts, gestures and protocols for makeup, shoes, accessories and everything else. Recalling how Meghan Markle once commented in an interview about how she didn’t know what to wear to meet Queen Elizabeth II or where to look for that kind of information, Gumarova is trying to create a one-stop site for all kinds of information about Diplomacy and Fashion.
“It all goes together. And people watch you, especially in Washington. Then suddenly, it’s in the news and all over the world. This is why this mission and gala, and hopefully the [college] courses will be so influential for people throughout the world to recognize how this is such an important topic and it’s high time to speak about it,” Gumarova said.