If you wrote the story of this year in a fiction workshop, your classmates would ream you out and your professor would flunk you. The plot is too hard to follow, the characters are caricatures, the setting makes no sense, and the weather is gross. What could possibly be a useful organizing principle for a year this chaotic and incoherent?
Style. Through attire so attention-grabbing it could (and did) set off its own news cycle, America revealed itself.
Some outfits exposed what individuals tried to elide: Why exactly did Paul Manafort need to flagrantly commit bank fraud and tax evasion? What is Melania Trump really thinking? Others that were once considered innocuous, strictly aesthetic choices took on a new charge in a post-#MeToo world. Does Marchesa still belong on the red carpet? Can fashion be an effective form of protest?
The year saw some of the most accomplished women in public life confront conservative attitudes about how they should dress for their jobs. Their choices and, in some cases, defiance, sparked bigger conversations about what it means to be “appropriate.” Other women just coming into their political power saw their personal style met with scrutiny and skepticism. Do they prove they belong by adhering to an established dress code? Or do they mold old institutions to their modern identities by pushing to amend the rules — both official and informal — that govern their appearance?
This was the fashion that made it onto our front pages, that challenged and scandalized and enraged and inspired us — or, at the very least, broke through the never-ending avalanche of news alerts to capture our collective attention.
Paul Manafort’s ostrich jacket
CREDIT: Special Counsel’s Office
Remember when you didn’t know what Paul Manafort’s ostrich jacket looked like?
When it was admitted into evidence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye just referred to it as “ostrich.” This allowed one to imagine an outrageous pink confection, a fluffy feathered thing, an aviary complement to Bjork’s swan dress. It would be ostentatious but also hilarious and vibrant and would, if nothing else, kind of, sort of, justify the use of ostrich for such a garment at all.
Instead, it was ostrich skin. The skin! Leather on the outside, lined with white satin, with truly horrendous white top-stitching all over. It set Mr. Manafort back an obscene $15,000. (And he already owned a $9,500 ostrich vest.)
Obviously, it was a crime against fashion. But given that Manafort, former campaign chairman for President Trump, was on trial for bank fraud and tax evasion, it was more like a crime against crime. What is the point of committing bank fraud and tax evasion if you’re going to spend your stolen money on something so hideous? You know what they say: Money can’t buy good taste.
An item such as this — not to mention the equally-atrocious python number of his — is not about style or fashion, about chasing a trend or expressing one’s own taste. It is money as an end unto itself. It is worth owning simply and solely to prove that one has the funds with which to acquire it. It would be more subtle to staple your bank statement to your sleeve.
The ostrich jacket was just one piece of an extravagant wardrobe, a slice of an exorbitant lifestyle. All the world eventually learned that, in a single year, Manafort dropped $444,610 at Alan Couture, the store where he acquired the ostrich jacket, along with a a $7,500 pure silk suit. Another year saw Manafort spend $113,450 at Beverly Hills’ House of Bijan, supposedly the most expensive men’s store in the world.
Manafort’s ostrich jacket became the symbol for a man consumed and ultimately wrecked by his own insatiable greed. Manafort is now a prisoner in Alexandria, Virginia, barely ten miles away from the $1.9 million house he bought his daughter with a wire transfer through Cyprus, as you do. He is awaiting a jury verdict and reportedly still holding out for a presidential pardon.
The Time’s Up Golden Globes “blackout”
CREDIT: Frazer Harrison/Getty
The Golden Globes aren’t the most serious, prestigious, or even easily-understood of awards shows. (That no one even knows who is in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Globes’ governing body, is a recurring Golden Globes monologue joke.) But in 2018, this everyone-gets-drunk-during-the-telecast fete had stumbled into a daunting position: It was the first awards show after the Harvey Weinstein story broke.
Amid a sudden, all-consuming national reckoning around sexual violence, with a spotlight on the deep, systemic abuses in the entertainment industry, the Globes took on an extra-political edge. What did the stars have to say for themselves?
Time’s Up, the Hollywood-founded initiative to fight workplace sexual harassment, officially launched on New Year’s Day. The Golden Globe Awards were January 7. The organization’s first PR effort was to encourage all Golden Globe attendees to wear black to the ceremony as an act of sartorial solidarity.
Though the red carpet isn’t a pulpit, designed to facilitate in-depth, nuanced conversation, there is still some space to be had there for political expression. This stands even though the expression may be limited by a celebrity’s contractual obligation to a fashion house or promotional responsibilities for their film, or the standard-issue desire to look as stunning as humanly possible. Both the red AIDS and pink breast cancer awareness ribbons rose to national prominence after being worn by celebrities on red carpets.
The “blackout” brought with it some confusing messaging, notably Time’s Up member Eva Longoria insisting that the reason for abhorring colorful attire was because “this is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. As these celebrities were obviously wearing dresses and tuxes designed and chosen for the occasion, it’s absurd to suggest that fashion ought to be an afterthought — not to mention unjust to the designers who rely upon the “who are you wearing?” question as a lead-in to the on-air credit their work and creativity deserve. And the selection of black, a non-color that signifies solemnity and even modesty, had the unfortunate ring of that victim-blaming reprise: “Dressed like that, don’t you think you were asking for it?”
The tenor of the Globes turned out to be surprisingly optimistic, bright amid the aesthetic darkness, as several actresses brought grassroots activists as their plus-ones. These women, in turn, used their moment at the microphone to draw attention to their work fighting for women beyond the glittery universe of film and television. And the men, for once, barely did any of the talking.
Ilhan Omar’s headscarf
CREDIT: Stephen Maturen / Getty
When Representative-elect Ilhan Omar arrived in Capitol Hill, a 181-rule awaited her: “No Member is to come into the House with his head covered, nor to remove from one place to another with his hat on, nor is to put on his hat in coming in or removing, until he be set down in his place.”
That rule was written at a time — 1837 — when Congress was all-male and all-white. Nearly two centuries later, as Omar’s swearing-in in January approaches, Democrats have proposed a clarification to the rule which would allow for religious headcoverings, including hijabs and kippahs, to be worn on the House floor. Co-authored by Omar, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee Rep. Jim McGovern, the proposal is part of a broader effort by House Democrats to “restore inclusion and diversity” in the House.
As the Washington Post reported, the proposed change “effectively doubles as a rebuke of the anti-Muslim rhetoric voiced by Republican candidates in several 2018 midterm races. It also is notable for coming at a time when several U.S. allies in Europe are adopting countrywide bans on face veils.”
“No one puts a scarf on my head but me,” Omar wrote. “It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment.”
The 2018 midterm election was full of firsts, several of which are embodied by Omar. She is the first Somali-American Muslim elected to Congress and, alongside Rashida Tlaib, is one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress. Come January, Omar will be the first federal legislator to wear a headscarf.
Serena Williams’ catsuit
CREDIT: Tim Clayton-Corbis/Getty
Nine months before the French Open, Serena Williams nearly died giving birth to her daughter.
Williams’ heart rate dropped precipitously during her contractions. After undergoing an emergency C-section, she experienced a pulmonary embolism, which in turn “sparked a slew of health complications that I am lucky to have survived,” as Williams later wrote.
That someone of Williams’ status — a woman in peak physical condition who is also a wildly wealthy celebrity, married to another wildly wealthy celebrity — could still endure what she did revealed to many the serious, dire shortcomings in reproductive health care in the United States. This is particularly true for black women, who are over three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes. Not two months before Williams wrote about her harrowing experience, ProPublica released a new installment in an ongoing series about maternal mortality rates in America. Its chilling headline: “Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth.”
Williams was confined to bed rest for the first six weeks of Alexis Olympia Ohanian’s life. Seven and a half months later, in a feat of athleticism astonishing even for her — easily among the greatest athletes alive — she made it to the fourth round of the French Open. And she did it in a catsuit.
The catsuit, made by Nike, was black and short-sleeved, with a Bazooka-gum pink band around her waist. It was an ideal marriage of fashion and function: The compression tights helped prevent the blood clots that had plagued her as she recovered from childbirth, and the design made its wearer “feel like a warrior.” Expressing admiration for the women of Black Panther, Wiliams told Reuters that she called her gear “my Wakanda-inspired catsuit.”
“I’m always living in a fantasy world,” she said. “I always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero. I feel like a superhero when I wear it.” On Instagram, she dedicated the catsuit “to all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy.”
And then French Open president Bernard Giudicelli changed the tournament’s dress code, effectively banning the catsuit. His justification: “You have to respect the game and the place.”
Some female athletes at the Open asked, not inaccurately, if Williams’ catsuit was not already in violation of the rules, which had strictures against full-length leggings and required women to wear skirts or dresses over leggings. Williams, for her part, seemed unfazed by Giudicelli’s decree, saying they have “a wonderful relationship” and that she’d “found other methods” to address her blood clots.
But the implication by Giudicelli that Williams did not “respect” the game to which she has dedicated her life, and the fact that she was forced to find a workaround so her medical needs could be accommodated, is disquieting. As my colleague Lindsay Gibbs wrote at the time:
“The decision by the French Open feels like another chapter of the tennis world’s unending struggle to come to terms with Williams’ muscular, voluptuous, and black body. And it’s a shame. Because that very same body has taken the sport — particularly on the women’s side — to new, unprecedented heights, and has made fistfuls of money for everyone in the tennis world, including the French Open. That body has won 23 major titles. That body is arguably the most successful body in the history of women’s sports, and the catsuit allowed Williams to feel ready and able to harness that power, and to inspire others to follow her lead.”
Melania’s “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket
CREDIT: Mandel Ngan/Getty
What is the first lady thinking? She so rarely expresses herself through words that the public is left to project significance — or defiance — onto her silence. With so little to go on by way of actual speech, Melania’s other means of communication take on outsize importance. So we obsess over her body language (it appears she would prefer not to take her husband’s hand), her facial expressions (default setting: bored disdain) and, naturally, her clothing.
For a time, Melania’s tone-deaf attire was generously read as clueless. But that is a condescending, sexist take masquerading as a forgiving one afforded to a former model who, if she comprehends nothing else about her role as first lady, clearly understands how to express herself through fashion.
The woman wore stilettos to a hurricane, and a nation wondered: Does she know what she’s doing? Or does she just not care? To which she responded, in the all-caps text in which her husband loves to tweet: “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”
Melania wore the instantly infamous $39 Zara jacket as she boarded a plane at Joint Base Andrews to head to a detention center holding immigrant children who, thanks to the compassion-depraved policy of the Trump administration, had been separated from their parents. She took it off upon landing in McAllen, Texas but slipped it back on again when she returned to Andrews. She was still wearing it when she walked back into the White House.
A hilariously unrepentant statement from Melania’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, followed: “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.”
For once, it was a true fact, not an alternate one, from the Trump administration. There was no hidden message. The jacket erased whatever dregs of a narrative remained about Melania as a helpless victim trapped in a life she would never have chosen and could not escape, and instead solidified her status as an active supporter of the most appalling aspects of her husband’s presidency.
The Marchesa dress in Crazy Rich Asians
CREDIT: Warner Bros.
At the end of a makeover montage, after our heroine has modeled one designer dress after another and rejected the too-bright, too-obvious, too-high-fashion options (“You look like a fancy Ebola virus”), she emerges from a taxi as if it’s a chrysalis wearing the winning gown. Amid all the opulence the audience has been luxuriating in for 90 minutes or so, this dress is supposed to stop the movie in its tracks. And for a fashion-fluent viewer, it really does — though not for the reason the script intended.
It’s delicate, soft, and ultra-feminine. It is far more princess-esque than anything Meghan Markle, an actual princess, has worn since she married Prince Harry — including her wedding dress. It’s pale blue, an appropriate choice for what director Jon M. Chu calls the movie’s “Cinderella moment.” And it’s made by Marchesa, the brand designed by and belonging to Georgina Chapman, Harvey Weinstein’s ex-wife.
For as long as Weinstein movies were racking up Oscar nominations, Marchesa gowns flowed down red carpets. Chapman’s rise as a designer was inextricably linked to Weinstein, his money (he made “timely contributions” to the brand) and his, to put it gently, influence. In the wake of the reports about Weinstein’s allegedly rampant sexual violence and abuse, several actresses revealed that Weinstein had forced them to wear his wife’s designs.
As Jezebel pointed out, the year that Chapman wed Weinstein was the same year Marchesa won Red Carpet Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards. It was 2007, and Sienna Miller, Jennifer Lopez, and Anne Hathaway all wore Marchesa to major awards shows, including the Academy Awards. The following year, Marchesa would be named one of the CFDA’s top ten finalists for the Vogue Fashion Fund. A New York Times story from that same year documented “Hollywood power stylists, designers and influential editors, few of whom would speak on the record for fear of offending Mr. Weinstein,” who chalked up Marchesa’s sudden rise to Weinstein’s aggression rather than Chapman’s designs.
Women who starred in Weinstein projects and then wore Marchesa as they made the red carpet rounds include: Cate Blanchett, Halle Berry, Mischa Barton, Freida Pinto, Emma Watson, Renee Zellweger, Blake Lively, and Kate Hudson. As one fashion insider told Page Six, “Georgina always had a hard time pushing herself. For Harvey, promotion’s in his blood. [He] wasn’t exactly subtle about asking Miramax’s female stars to wear Marchesa on the red carpet. And if the studio chief of your movie, and potential movies, asked you to wear a certain designer, wouldn’t you want to accommodate him?”
In an interview, Felicity Huffman confirmed a rumor that Weinstein threatened to stop financially supporting the promotion of Transamerica, the Oscar-nominated film in which she starred, if she didn’t wear Marchesa on multiple red carpets. (She wore Marchesa to the 2006 Golden Globes, where she won best actress in a drama.) Jessica Chastain said Weinstein tried to force her to wear a Marchesa gown to the premiere of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby at the Cannes Film Festival (it was produced by The Weinstein Company); when she refused, he spent the evening “publicly berating” her.
What will become of Marchesa? Well, Chapman has one very powerful ally: Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Barely six months after the Weinstein story broke, Chapman was the subject of a glowing and forgiving Vogue profile, accompanied by an editor’s letter imploring readers to not drag Chapman down with her now-ex-husband. According to Wintour, Chapman “had no idea about her husband’s behavior” and therefore “blaming her for any of it, as too many have in our gladiatorial digital age, is wrong.” The letter didn’t win over everyone — an especially sharp rebuke to it came from Stella Bugbee at The Cut — but some stars have slowly resumed wearing Marchesa’s designs, starting with Scarlett Johansson at the 2018 Met Gala.
Shooting on Crazy Rich Asians wrapped in June 2017, just four months before the publication of back-to-back bombshell investigations into Weinstein’s decades of sexual violence. For a movie that, for the most part, looks like an exhilarating dispatch from Hollywood-future — a place where casts and stories reflect the diversity of the world, where Asian actors play romantic leads — the Marchesa dress hits like one last jolt of Hollywood past.
Michelle Obama’s Milly dress
CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Did you know the dress has pockets?
You can’t really seem them in Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and is a first of a first: Sherald is the female African-American artist to be commissioned for the NPG’s official portrait of the first lady, and Obama, of course, is our country’s first black first lady.
But the dress Obama is wearing, designed by Milly co-founder and creative director Michelle Smith, has pockets in the side seams.
It’s a detail that fits the vibe of the portrait’s subject, who spent her time in the White House blending high fashion with accessible wares, cinching her waist with an Azzedine Alaia belt over a cardigan from J. Crew, as at ease in Versace as Target. And Obama’s selection of Michelle Smith over any male designer (like say, Jason Wu, who designed both of her inaugural ballgowns) made the portrait an all-female artistic enterprise.
The Milly dress is based off a design from the spring 2017 collection, which, Smith told the Washington Post, was inspired by “a desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality” and featured ties and lacing to evoke the “feeling of being held back. . . that we’re not quite there yet.”
The dress is made of stretch cotton poplin — easy to iron, tough to wrinkle — and bright but still minimalist. “I wanted to create a dress that reflected Mrs. Obama’s personality,” Smith told Elle. “Bold and confident, yet approachable and relatable.” It also reveals Obama’s arms and shoulders, an echo of the sleeveless sheath Obama wore for her official White House photo which, in the oh-so-innocent time of 2009, was enough to “cause uproar.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s red lipstick
CREDIT: Rick Loomis/Getty
One of the most fun things about being a woman in public is that, no matter what you’re doing, people will say you’re doing it wrong.
This is especially true when it comes to matters of presentation: How a woman dresses or styles her hair or wears her makeup. There’s data on that, by the way: Women who don’t wear makeup are perceived as less competent, but women who wear too much makeup are considered less trustworthy and reliable.
Probably there is some Exact Right Amount Of Makeup that women should be wearing — the quantity and tenor thereof being determined by men, who know better — and you could devote all your years on this Earth trying to suss it out and never hit this imaginary, arbitrary mark. Or you could just do what you like.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez already doesn’t look like the average politician: The 29-year-old Latina from the Bronx is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Rather than try to contort her aesthetic to fit a “traditional” (read: less overtly feminine) idea of how an elected official should be she kept wearing bright red lipstick. After her June 15 debate appearance, inquiring citizens wanted to know what she had on. Once she ID’d it for her Twitter followers, it promptly sold out.
I have been getting many inquiries about my debate lip color in the last two days.
I GOT YOU.
It’s Stila “Stay All Day” Liquid in Beso. 💄 pic.twitter.com/xhkxSXZXCO
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) June 17, 2018
In an interview with Elle just weeks after she’d won her primary, Ocasio-Cortez was asked about her thoughts on makeup and self-presentation on the campaign trail. “I feel like one of the ways in which communities are marginalized is by making us feel like our identities are trivial and that who we are is trivial and that expressing who we are isn’t important. For me, it’s important to be fashionable,” she said. “That’s part of who I am, and it’s important for me, as a woman, to run while being feminine because I am feminine.” She went on:
“I derive power from my femininity. And any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick. Other people’s attempt to say, ‘Oh, talking about lipstick is unimportant,’ [they are] talking about feminine expression being unimportant. That expressing yourself as a woman is unimportant. Don’t ever believe that. Wear the skirt. Wear the combat boots. Tear up your jeans. Whatever makes you feel authentically yourself and like a badass. The only way that we’re going to move forward is by running as our authentic selves.”
All our ideas about what politicians are supposed to look like are limited by who our most of our politicians have always been: white, male, middle-aged and definitely not wearing anything called “Beso” and sold at Sephora. Ocasio-Cortez, along with the record-setting number of women joining her in Congress, is expanding our collective understanding of what power can look like.