Better known for high tempers than high fashion, Washington, D.C., has seen catwalks pop up in the unlikeliest of places recently: embassies, historic buildings and even the State Department.
That’s because people in the diplomatic community are realizing — and relishing — fashion’s role in diplomacy. Much as food, art and sports can say a lot about a nation’s culture, fashion does, too.
“There’s tremendous power in what we wear,” said Jan Du Plain, president and chief executive officer of Du Plain Global Enterprises, an international public relations and events company that helped launch Cultural Tourism DC’s Passport DC program. “If one of our high-level women or men wears something that is inappropriate or can be seen as questionable, fashion speaks. When we wear something, it can have such a strong impact on people because we are watching, particularly those that are high up in government.”
Du Plain recently worked with Indira Gumarova, wife of Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček, and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) to host “Glamour & Diplomacy,” a fashion show at the State Department. The April 9 event featured female ambassadors and ambassadors’ wives wearing ensembles by contemporary designers from around the world. More than a dozen countries and five continents were represented.
Three days later, the Embassy of Uzbekistan presented Marhamathon Umarova, founder of the MarU brand and one of the country’s leading fashion designers. She spoke about the evolution of ikat, a textile, and presented her latest collection.
“The style and the patterns that they used and the cloth that they created from their own country was fascinating to learn about,” Du Plain said.
In March, the embassies of the Czech Republic, Malta and Slovenia hosted “Fashion Night Ignites” featuring several designers, including Burnett New York; Charles & Ron; Dur Doux; Maja Stamol; and Poner. After the show, cocktails and cuisine from each country were served. More than 250 people attended the event at the historic Perry Belmont House.
Gumarova — a PR consultant who previously hosted a showcase of designer shoes by Manolo Blahnik, whose father was Czech — had a hand in all three events and said more fashion shows are in the works. She is working with the Alliance Française Washington DC on a program at the French Embassy in September, and she has been approached about doing shows in New York and London.
Now is the right time for fashion to take its place in Washington because people are less judgmental of cutting-edge clothing, said Gumarova, founder of the newly formed group Diplomacy & Fashion.
“Now with the Trump administration, you actually can wear color, you can wear anything you want and you will be less judged,” Gumarova said. “And also, the money is here. The uber rich people are here and they don’t want to wear the same dress that was already in the magazine, so they start to pay more attention.”
While D.C. has traditionally been a fairly conservative city dress-wise — and still is to a large extent — Gumarova said it is an ideal hub for innovative, unconventional fashion given its international character. “Washington is the right place because we have almost 200 embassies and every embassy promotes their culture so why not promote through fashion when they already promote through food or through sport?”
Style, Substance and Double Standards
The idea of using fashion as a public diplomacy tool has been building for quite some time. Over the years, various D.C. embassies have hosted fashion or jewelry shows to promote their native designers — among them Estonia, Lebanon, the Philippines and Canada, just to name a few.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry also recognized the power of fashion. In 2016, he welcomed ambassadors and diplomats from about 80 countries to “Diplomacy by Design,” an event hosted by the U.S. Department of Protocol and ELLE Magazine that highlighted fashion as a diplomatic platform (also see “‘Diplomacy by Design’ Examines What Clothes Say About Us” in the December 2016 issue).
“The clothes we create, the food we eat, the sports we play and the traditions that we honor are all part of a nation’s identity and therefore an integral part of how countries relate to one another,” Kerry told the audience via video link. “We know that America’s standing in the world isn’t determined solely by political and security policies,” he added. “On many occasions, cultural diplomacy can achieve what traditional diplomacy cannot because it speaks a universal language.”
But sometimes that message can get lost in the clothes we wear. Also, with greater freedom in fashion choices comes greater responsibility — and scrutiny, especially for women. Take first lady Melania Trump’s $39 “I really don’t care. Do u?” jacket that she wore in June 2018 to McAllen, Texas, the site of many family separations of illegal immigrants. The media, and many others, had a field day trying to discern whether the former fashion model’s choice held a hidden message. Was it a rebuke of her husband’s immigration crackdown, or a show of support that she didn’t care what his detractors thought?
The topic of Melania’s mysterious jacket came up at another discussion on fashion called “Diplomacy X Design” sponsored by the Meridian International Center and held the National Museum of Women in the Arts last November. There, Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, said first ladies in particular can send powerful messages via the clothing they wear — but only if there’s a clear strategy behind it. In Melania’s case, however, the message seemed muddled.
“I haven’t seen much evidence of Melania Trump having a real, clear message behind her tenure of first lady, thus far,” Meredith Koop, Michelle Obama’s stylist and one of the panelists, said at the discussion. “I hesitate to analyze it because I feel like it gives it too much weight.”
Of course, Koop might be a bit biased given her close relationship to Michelle Obama, but there’s no doubt that as first lady, Obama endured her fair share of fashion scrutiny, both positive and negative.
Obama worked to highlight emerging American designers and break the mold of staid skirts and suits. She wore everything from striking pink silk suits, to intricately patterned wrap dresses, to bold red off-the-shoulder ball gowns. At the time, even wearing dresses that bared her shoulders and toned arms caused a stir.
Looking back, the shock of seeing bare shoulders on a first lady seems quite tame compared to the risqué attire Melania wore as a top model. But as first lady, even Melania has hewed close to tradition, often opting for elegantly restrained, though still eye-catching, gowns reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy’s classic style.
But perhaps no other woman in politics has had to navigate the minefield of fashion more than the woman Melania’s husband beat for the presidency. Long before becoming the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, Hillary Clinton struggled against the fashion microscope she found herself under as first lady in the 1990s.
She was often criticized for her bulky, dowdy suits and various hairstyles. Once she entered the presidential race, however, her look evolved to embrace more form-fitting, sleeker suits, although her overall style remained minalimist and unmemorable as she fought to keep the focus on her politics and not her appearance.
Clinton’s cautious clothing choices serve as a reminder that in the top echelons of politics, where people take notice of smarts and savvy, clothes are still an afterthought and design shouldn’t serve as a distraction. Yet Clinton is also a prime example of the double fashion standards applied to women, who often feel pressured to look attractive but not too attractive in a professional environment.
Givhan agreed that American women tend to sacrifice style for being taken seriously. “There often seems to be a sublimation of the pleasure and delight in fashion in exchange for being perceived as authoritative and powerful.”
Vanessa Friedman, writing in a July 2016 piece in The New York Times, said that high-level women often tone down style in favor of substance and “that for a woman to wield power in what was historically a man’s world, she had to pretty much dress like a man — but brighter!”
Female political figures continue to play it safe, as evidenced by the bland button-down suits worn by every single female candidate in the current race to become the Democratic presidential nominee.
But times are gradually changing as people venture out of their closet comfort zone. And part of that evolution is due to a greater appreciation of fashions from other countries, both traditional and up-and-coming, among Western consumers and designers.
American designers are increasingly incorporating elements of signature styles from abroad, such as Indian saris, Japanese kimonos and Nigerian headdresses.
This international trend was on full display at the “Glamour & Diplomacy” runway show at the State Department, an event that itself symbolized how far a modestly dressed government city like Washington, D.C., has become. “Let’s face it, when is the last time you had a DJ in the State Department,” joked Czech Ambassador Kmoníček at the show.
“Glamour and diplomacy has arrived in Washington, D.C.” said Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs,” opening the program to loud cheers. “It’s cutting-edge designs,” she continued. “It’s innovation, it’s entrepreneurship. These are all important values that we promote in the United States and around the world.”
“Each costume that these lovely women wore had its own special motif, ethnic in origin and international in style,” Gumarova said, “and each costume recaptures with elegance the modern and sophisticated style of each designer’s respective country.”
For example, Arikana Chihombori-Quao, ambassador of the African Union, burst onto the stage donning a yellow robe, with pearl accent jewelry, that represented a Selma design from Ghana. Meanwhile, Changu Newman, wife of the ambassador of Botswana, wore a number designed by Isabel dos Santos, wife of the ambassador of Mozambique, who plans to develop her own fashion line in her home country (also see “Mozambican Wife, a Former Diplomat, Enters World of High Fashion” in the May 2019 issue). Other notable models included Hemal Shringla, wife of the Indian ambassador, and Ivonn Szeverényi, wife of the Hungarian ambassador. The dresses and designs spanned from lesser-known labels like Carolina Estefan of Colombia to Roberto Cavalli and Lilly Pulitzer.
For countries large and small, breaking into the world of high fashion is critical, both from a financial and cultural standpoint. Today, fashion is a $2.4 trillion global industry that employs tens of millions of people. For decades, it was — and still is — dominated by luxury Western fashion houses. But as developing nations such as India and China increasingly enter the middle class and become fashion consumers, the industry is poised for change.
It’s also key for countries to export their own brand of fashion to raise awareness of their cultures and growing economies in a globalized world. Gumarova often mentions the struggles that countries face trying to overcome inherent prejudice and stereotypes when it comes to foreign designers, with traditional national attire often overlooked by the mainstream fashion industry.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the trend of cultural appropriation can go too far if it’s not handled carefully.
For instance, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family were ridiculed by Indians after wearing elaborate traditional outfits that the BBC called “Bollywood-style bling.” Gumarova, speaking at the “Diplomacy X Design” event, said the problem with Trudeau’s attire was that many viewed it as a cheap public relations stunt that didn’t convey authenticity. Audience members pointed out that instead of going all-out like Trudeau did, diplomats can opt for simpler gestures such as wearing the national color of a country as a sign of respect.
It’s these kinds of tricky subtleties that can speak volumes, particularly in the protocol-dictated world of diplomacy, where public interactions and events are carefully orchestrated to avoid any faux pas.
“Fashion — what we wear — at [diplomatic] events is a big statement to the other country as well as what we want to represent of our country,” Du Plain said. “Fashion speaks. Fashion has a language all its own.”
It makes a statement to others about not only how we feel about ourselves, but how we feel about others — and that we’ve taken the time to dress appropriately, she added.
“Diplomacy, for me, is really the art of interacting with others and the art of making others feel comfortable because from the interaction that we have with people, then we can trade with them, then we can talk about the political strife, then we can discuss things of, shall we say, more challenging levels,” Du Plain said. “If the setting is right and the food and the dress and all of that comes together and sets an atmosphere for people to have really good diplomacy … all of that is, I feel, what diplomacy is about.”
Gumarova said she frequently fields questions about what to wear to diplomatic events. It can be confusing because countries have different protocols. She noted that “business casual” can mean very different things in two places.
For instance, the most popular outfit choice in D.C. for an event that requires “smart casual” attire is a black dress with pearls for women, she said, but in Prague, that means a jacket and high heels or flats.
Attendees also have to be mindful about the designer of the clothes they wear to events. “If you go to a Palestinian reception and wear a dress made by a Jewish designer, it can be offensive,” Gumarova pointed out.
Additionally, it’s a sign of disrespect to wear gloves in Asia because it impedes handshaking, she noted.
“On the diplomatic level, we have to follow diplomatic protocol, but we also want to follow fashion protocol,” Gumarova said.
Hats Off to Power of Fashion
Fashion and diplomacy aren’t new bedfellows. When Benjamin Franklin traveled to France in 1776 to present his ambassador credentials to King Louis XVI, he wore a fur hat to keep his head warm. The French so admired his “rugged American frontiersman” look that he ordered more hats to wear during his visit. While Franklin choose the hat out of necessity (his head was cold), his choice was a breath of fresh air in a country fed up with the gilded excesses of Marie Antoinette’s court.
Fashion has come a long way since Ben Franklin’s time, although fur hats of all varieties remain in vogue today. Moreover, just as Franklin’s hat symbolized a newly independent country’s grit and break with tradition, fashion continues to convey a country’s heritage and values — whether it’s America, Azerbaijan or Argentina — while also serving as a cultural bridge.
It’s a jumping off point to help people relate to one another, Du Plain said. Ultimately, that lays the foundation for relationships that can withstand differences when they arise.
“I love the idea of people learning about different cultures and countries and therefore when we do, we have more empathy and understanding,” she said. “If we’re ultimately talking about a better world, a perfect world, a peaceful world, it’s going to come from our relationships and our ability to interact with people.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Editorial assistant Samantha Subin contributed to this report.