Right now on the Daily Caller, you will find articles on how #MeToo and affirmative action are going too far, the most recent tactic President Trump has used to “eviscerate” his critics, and plenty of articles headed by Barack Obama making “politician shame face” — basically, everything you’d expect to find on a right-leaning site launched by Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson. You will also find this:
TIFFANY TRUMP TURNS HEADS IN BLACK SHEER TOP OUT IN LONDON [PHOTOS]
It’s an article format that’s familiar to everyone who has ever been on the internet, or on this very website, the gist of which is essentially “a person is photographed wearing an outfit.” But it’s also an article format more closely associated with fashion- and entertainment-focused blogs or mainstream general interest sites rather than ones that the Southern Poverty Law Center described as having a “white nationalist problem.”
The difference, though, was that if you happened to be the sort of person who was looking for information on what Tiffany Trump wore on this particular night out in London, the Daily Caller was one of the only places you could get it.
Conservative websites like the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and smaller blogs have started to fill what some see as a hole in the market: content about what conservative women are wearing, minus the politics.
“Conservative women in general have a larger hill to climb when it comes to getting coverage, and fashion is no exception,” Daily Caller reporter Katie Jerkovich told Racked via email. “Michelle Obama consistently appeared on the cover of fashion and news magazines during Barack Obama’s presidency, while the current first lady has received much less coverage. Those kinds of inconsistencies are hard to ignore. Why has Melania not had the same kind of treatment? That’s why we are here. We cover the stories other news outlets either don’t want to do or simply refuse to for a variety of reasons. Because there is an audience out there that wants to read about it.”
It’s common practice, particularly on the right, to complain that Melania Trump has not yet been on the cover of a major American magazine as first lady. She was a model when she met her husband, they argue, and she wears very expensive clothes; plus, Michelle Obama was on 12 of them.
And to a certain degree, it’s a fair point. After the election, Fashionista, which had covered Michelle’s style as first lady extensively, posted a statement on the site that they wouldn’t be writing about Melania’s outfits unless they were part of a larger context of importance (a state dinner dress that paid homage to the visiting nation, for example). Major designers like Marc Jacobs, Derek Lam, and Christian Siriano also publicly stated that they would refuse to dress her for the inauguration.
To claim that the fashion and news establishments have ignored Melania’s style, however, would be dishonest. The same outlets that cover celebrity and political style — everyone from CNN to E! News, the New York Times, and, yes, Vogue — write about the things that Melania chooses to wear, even when they aren’t as controversial as, say, that jacket (we’ll get back to that later).
But while you can certainly find coverage of Melania’s most major outfits in the mainstream press, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be couched in what some conservatives see as political finger-wagging.
That’s where people like John Binder come in. Binder, who was the subject of a rather spicy New York Times profile last November, largely covers immigration but also acts as the site’s de facto Melania style reporter, a beat he says he follows more exhaustively than anyone else online: “There’s no fashion website that covers Melania Trump’s clothes as closely as we do, with the photo collages that we do. Not even a place like the Daily Mail does them as often as we do.”
A conservative reporter based in Louisiana, Binder sees his fashion outsider status as a benefit. Regular Americans, he says, don’t have time to care about which designer makes which pair of shoes, and they also don’t need a side of politics when all they want to look at is a bunch of photos of the first lady wearing a nice outfit.
And wear nice outfits she does. “Melania Trump is the most fashionable, certainly the most fashion-forward first lady we’ve ever had,” he says. “I think that is pretty much established now, whether or not the fashion press wants to admit it.” He says that he covers essentially every single outfit Melania wears in public because each one is worthy of covering. What happens if he doesn’t approve of a look? “Well, I’ve never had this problem before because Melania has never worn anything that I have not liked.”
To him, Melania is the ur-fashion icon — undeniably beautiful, exaggeratedly feminine, unapologetically glamorous. She is also largely quiet. When I ask why Breitbart doesn’t afford the other beautiful, well-dressed women of the Trump family the same coverage, he explains, “Americans in general have such an admiration for Melania Trump. You see that in polling. Melania Trump is constantly the most favorable of the Trump family, and I see her in a light that I don’t see maybe other members of the Trump family. But I will cover their clothes when there is a special occasion.”
Indeed, Melania Trump is by far the biggest fashion draw on conservative websites. Though Ivanka, who until recently had her own clothing line, also is considered one of the most stylish women in conservative politics, the fact that her husband is Jared Kushner may make her a messier figure to root for. Meanwhile, Tiffany, busy with law school, is often the subject of tabloid coverage that draws mostly from her enigmatic Instagram presence.
There are elements of Melania that, on the surface, would seem to offend conservative Americans’ sensibilities too. For instance, how angry should we be about the fact that Melania, unlike Michelle Obama, is not exactly a champion of American fashion designers? For Breitbart, which tackles topics like immigration and the economy through a nationalist lens, it’s a fair question, and one Binder gets a lot, he says with a laugh. He sees Melania’s style as a form of economic nationalism.
“Versace is an Italian brand. Their clothes should be made in Italy. If their clothes are not made in Italy, you’re not really an Italian brand anymore,” he says. “There’s a false perception that Americans … they want everything to be made in America.”
And then there was the jacket. Who, political ideology aside, could support a first lady, whose main job is to at least embody the appearance of caring, wearing a jacket that screamed, “I really don’t care, do u?” en route to visiting detained immigrant children separated from their parents?
“That jacket was so obviously a message to the media of, ‘You’re going to say whatever you want about me and I really don’t care,’” Binder says, echoing the president’s tweeted explanation for the first lady’s outfit choice. “The real question then here is, ‘Do you care about the way you’re covering me?’ because it’s disgusting. It’s disturbing. … Of course the media, being ridiculous and dumb, play it off as if they have no idea who it’s directed to.”
It was just one example of the unfairness with which media treats Melania’s every move, in Binder’s view, particularly when compared to her predecessor.
“I remember being in college and Michelle Obama was first lady and this group of girls on E! News or something, they’re just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this cardigan that she wore!’ It was, like, this $5 cardigan. It was, like, a J.Crew cardigan. It was no big deal. I’ve seen them multiple times. I went to classes with girls that wore cardigans just like this. … Everyone liked to say nice things about her, and she seems like a very nice woman, but with Melania Trump, it’s not at all the same way.”
Binder yearns for the bitchiness of the Perez Hilton blog era, and blames the “insane social justice left” for its demise. “It’s like you can’t criticize any woman’s clothes. You can’t criticize any man’s clothes. You can’t criticize fashion. … Nothing means anything anymore. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, all these things, and it’s like, I so hate that,” he says. “I loved back in the days when people would criticize either what someone was wearing or a collection because they genuinely did not like it. I recently did that with Meghan Markle’s wedding dress.”
But while fashion media has seemingly gotten much nicer since the aughts, Binder views this shift as hypocritical due to the unwelcoming attitude toward conservative political figures and celebrities.
Jerkovich says that because the Daily Caller’s audience is by default more interested in the first lady, it makes sense that more mainstream media outlets don’t cover her fashion as much. “We aren’t much different than other sites, except that we know what interests our readers and that is what we are going to cover,” she writes. “Take Melania Trump. Our audience has a large interest in the first lady so we are going to cover her attire more than outlets like Entertainment Weekly or People magazine have done.”
It is true that certain websites and magazines that may have published a quick 200-word story about a Narciso Rodriguez dress Michelle Obama wore back in 2013 would not treat a Chanel dress that Melania Trump wore with the same breeziness. For people who believe the Trump era is an exciting and much-needed overhaul, this may seem like an injustice. It’s a question that all fashion websites have had to grapple with since the election.
Go Fug Yourself is an extensive, amusing catalog of celebrity fashion that started in 2004, back when the politics and fashion spaces didn’t have a whole lot to do with each other. But when Michelle Obama became first lady, everything changed. Obama was taking stylistic risks in a way the past three first ladies hadn’t, and launched little-known designers like Jason Wu into cultural relevance. It was only natural that GFY, after some hesitancy due to concerns about the arguments commenters might get into, eventually began covering her clothes.
It was different with a Trump in office. The site’s editors, Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks, known as the Fug Girls, vehemently opposed what the newly elected president stood for, and believed the women in the family, fashionable or not, were an extension of him and his views. “It became increasingly hard for us to talk about Ivanka’s day dresses, as if she wasn’t out there working on behalf of a person we found to be super dangerous to the world. It felt like marginalizing all of that,” explained Cocks in an email to Racked.
“Yes, of course people would be more interested in a fashion model first lady in a $30,000 Gucci coat if we weren’t simultaneously extremely concerned about her husband’s administration,” echoes Morgan. “But that’s not the world we live in. If someone is irritated that people aren’t covering Melania because of the person she chose to marry, I don’t know what to tell you. Actions have consequences. Your favorite fashion blog choosing not to cover someone because of her husband’s reprehensible political choices seems like one of the very least important ones.”
Though Melania only rarely makes appearances on GFY these days, Morgan and Cocks don’t notice a particular bias among the media in terms of how it covers Melania. “Robin Givhan [the Washington Post’s fashion critic] writes as smartly about Melania as she did about Michelle,” writes Cocks. “It’s possible some [other writers] have a particular bias, but as columnists, you’re allowed to; columnists are opinion writers, generally. In terms of simply reporting what happened, as with Melania’s recent gaffe with the Zara jacket that said ‘I really don’t care, do u?,’ the straight news stories I read about it did just report the facts and left opinion out of it.”
The Fug Girls and Binder echo each other on one thing, however: Fashion can still be an escape. “Everything has been politicized to a point that people are so tired of it,” says Binder. “I see fashion like most Americans see fashion, which is an escape from the real world.”
For their part, the Fug Girls say they likely would have slowed down their political fashion coverage regardless of who won the 2016 election: “It’s nice to have a space people can come and talk to each other as a break from everything that’s happening in the world — whether you’re liberal or conservative or someplace in between, we’re all riled up right now and we need breathers. So for now, GFY is going to be that.” They might have different reasons, but neither website has any desire to discuss politics and clothing in the same sentence.