There’s a scene in the heart-wrenching 2008 film Frozen River, in which two impoverished women who smuggle people across the US-Canada border bring a dead baby back to the parents it was separated from. One of them drives, instructing the other to hold the baby close to her body so that the corpse will not be cold when they hand it to the mother. Something miraculous happens, somewhere between the warmth of the jacket the child is wrapped in, the skin it is close to, and perhaps the familiar sound of a heartbeat.
For some reason, news of US First Lady Melania Trump travelling to and from a child detention centre wearing a jacket with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” (sic) reminded me of this movie, and this scene in particular. It does not matter that she reportedly didn’t wear it inside the centre, one of several where children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border have been detained. Many of those children don’t understand English. Some of us, watching, do. And we do care, but the message wasn’t for us, either.
Some style statements are literal. Propaganda through fashion – and specifically, through styles created by private manufacturers not directly affiliated to governments – is not just for those in the public eye, as Ms. Trump’s own $39 Zara jacket is an example of.
During World War II, textiles with lively prints were produced in the US and UK with concealed messages. An attractive red dress with black and white patterns donated to the FIDM Museum, Los Angeles, sewn in the 1940s, says in reversed writing: “There’ll Always Be An England”. Its wearer would be able to read the text when examining herself closely in the mirror, but would likely walk by countless people who did not catch its hidden message. In Japan at the same time, omoshirogara kimonos, depicting scenes of war and victory, were worn privately. The fabric was sometimes used as the inner lining of kimonos worn outside. India’s khadi movement was a public display of political sentiments. Charles Dickens’ novel The Tale of Two Cities features tricoteuses, women who knitted the names of those sent to the guillotine into their purls. Historically, women in the spectator seats of executions were indeed known to knit. Among their goods was the Phrygian cap, which unlike a crown was a symbol of democracy.
Zara didn’t just make a random jacket put to strategic use, for in the recent past it has also used anti-Semitic and white nationalist motifs on clothing. Neither did Ms. Trump, whose image is carefully crafted, just throw on an outfit. It’s the kind of thing an obnoxious teen might wear to dinner with his parents, except that on her and on this occasion it was more like Cruella de Ville’s Dalmatian fur coat.
Here’s a tiny consolation: in 2017, Turkish shoppers discovered notes sewn into Zara attire by unpaid workers hired by a factory which also made Mango and Next products. These notes brought attention to their plight, shared by workers worldwide. Some opinions are worn on the sleeve; but some truths are sewn into the seams.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 28th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.