If you haven’t been keeping up, it’s okay to judge a woman on her appearance again. The latest public figure to learn about feminism’s part-time hours is Melania Trump. The First Lady and her husband were photographed on Tuesday as they made their way to the scene of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. But the talking point wasn’t the recovery operation or whether Donald Trump had finally managed to put on a presidential demeanour — it was Melania’s dress sense. For she had flung on a pair of slinky high heels and a bomber jacket for the journey.
The First Lady may as well have directed the floodwaters personally, such was the consternation her footwear inspired. 'Melania Trump, Off to Texas, Finds Herself on Thin Heels' screamed a headline in the New York Times' style section. In the article, Vanessa Friedman, the paper of record's chief fashion critic, snipped:
'When is a shoe not just a shoe? When it is a pair of very high, needle-thin heels worn by the first lady of the United States on her way to the site of a natural disaster. Then it becomes a symbol for what many see as the disconnect between the Trump administration and reality.'
Of course, Mrs Trump's footwear was only 'becoming a symbol' of anything because commentators like Friedman were making it one. And however it was dressed up, the rationale for breaking with the progressive orthodoxy against framing a woman through her appearance amounted to little more than politically-motivated spite. Vogue’s Lynn Yaeger seethed:
‘One sincerely hopes there is a pair of leopard-print Wellies-in-waiting to get her from the tarmac to the limo. But what kind of message does a fly-in visit from a First Lady in sky-high stilettos send to those suffering the enormous hardship, the devastation of this natural disaster?’
Over on Slate, Christina Cauterucci sneered:
'On a trip ostensibly made to support people who’ve lost everything and the agencies trying to help them recover, Melania found a way to make her visit about herself… For this former model, there can be no sublimating of the wardrobe to keep the attention on those in need. Fashion doesn’t take a break, and white is a perfectly good color for a blouse in a rainstorm.’
How different it was when Hillary Clinton was running for the Oval Office. Then, objecting to her giving speeches about inequality in a $12,000 Armani outfit was sexist, in the eyes of Mic. Ms Magazine sighed that the row 'exemplified how gender roles and expectations shape the lives of women in politics—and how the double-standards applied to them put their appearances, and not just their politics, in the national spotlight.' Melania Trump would love to hear about double standards right about now.
There is an echo here of the unseemly spate of articles accusing Donald Trump of being unkind to Melania. Typically, a few frames of video would be selected, social media mined for 'evidence', and pop psychologists would diagnose Melania's emotional wellbeing from New York newsrooms.
Inherent in all this is a sense that the rules are different for liberal women than for those whose politics are conservative or, as in the case of the First Lady, not fully known. Of course, Melania Trump is married to Evil Incarnate and so it is permissible to take cheap shots over her shoes or psychological health. If Trump cannot be got at, then his wife is fair game. She will be demeaned, dismissed, and scoffed at because of who her husband is. She will be written about as if she were an emotionally-dead clothes-rack because of who her husband is. She will have entirely different rules applied to media coverage of her because of who her husband is. It's a peculiar feminism that stands mute while this happens.