Why Are First Ladies Still Fashion Accessories?

Why Are First Ladies Still Fashion Accessories?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

This past weekend Melania Trump’s spokeswoman penned an op-ed for CNN in which she criticized the media’s unrelenting criticism of the first lady. Among her concerns was how news coverage of FLOTUS has focused on her clothing choices rather than her White House initiatives. Is it true that the media have a fixation on the first lady’s fashion sense?

During her trip to Africa this past October, Mrs. Trump drew attention to how much coverage her fashion choices receive, lamenting, “I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.” The New York Times’ response?  “What she does is inextricably bound up in what she chooses to wear while doing it.”

Imagine the Times proclaiming that the president’s actions were tied to which suit he wore that day, in line with its conclusion that “the clothes make the first lady.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find media coverage of Mrs. Trump’s clothing choices. In all, at least 16.5 percent  of worldwide online news coverage of the president’s wife over the past two years has mentioned her fashion selections, according to the GDELT Project. To be fair, before she became Donald Trump’s spouse, Melania Knavs was a fashion model – so her wardrobe choices are not untrodden ground. Moreover, she’s made a couple of famously provocative style statements as first lady. But that seems more an excuse for retro behavior on the part of the media, rather than an explanation, when you consider that Michelle Obama has not fared much better, with at least 18.4 percent of her coverage emphasizing her fashion choices.

Hillary Clinton, despite having largely faded from the public eye in the last two years, saw at least 9 percent of her coverage mention fashion. In contrast, excluding coverage that also mentioned his wife or daughter, just over 2 percent of media coverage of President Trump referenced fashion. Much of this was not about his own clothing, but rather the fashion choices of others he was meeting with.

The same holds for former President Obama. Excluding coverage that also mentioned his wife, just 2.8 percent of his media coverage mentioned fashion. Female heads of state seem to do better than American first ladies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had around 5 percent of her coverage mention fashion, while 5.5 percent of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s coverage referenced fashion.

Putting this all together, (male) U.S. presidents see just 2-3 percent of their coverage mention fashion in any form and those articles are typically about the fashion of female leaders or spouses they are meeting. Female leaders Merkel and May had around 5 percent each, about half of Hillary Clinton’s ratio. First Ladies Obama and Trump, on the other hand, are largely covered as fashion icons rather than political figures.

In this era of feminism, why are we still covering first ladies as fashion accessories — are their outfits more important than their actions? Is it time for the press to “BE BEST”?