Symbolism and the State of the Union

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President Trump’s recent State of the Union Address was the 95th annual state of the union message delivered in person by a President to the American people. (In the past, some were written messages.) The State of the Union Address is an event shaped by rigid protocol. It is also an event colored by symbolism, especially this year, when members of Congress used their attire to make silent statements about the state of our nation.

Anyone who had watched recent awards shows already knew that this is the year of wearing black as a statement against women’s abuse by men, particularly in the entertainment industry. The #MeToo Movement gave a solemn tone to events like the Academy Awards red carpet, where both men and women wore black clothing and pins declaring “Time’s Up” for the abusers. The members of the Democratic Working Women’s Caucus decided to wear black to the address, according to Representative Lois Frankel, one of the group’s chairs, in solidarity:  “We want to show solidarity with the #MeToo movement, really to first basically thank the victims of sexual harassment who have had the courage to come forward. To have solidarity with…folks who are fighting for a cultural shift that enables men and women to work side by side in safety and dignity free of sexual harassment.” All members of Congress were invited to wear black.  “We’re not trying to make this partisan,” Frankel said. “Sexual harassment knows no party.”

When President Trump addressed Congress last year, the Democratic Working Women’s Caucus wore white, a visual link to the women’s suffrage movement.

This year, a number of members of Congress, most of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus, used a different look to make their symbolic statement. They chose to enhance their formal wear with items made of kente cloth, a colorful type of silk and cotton fabric native to South Ghana.  They were protesting President Trump’s recent offensive remark about underrepresented countries in Africa and Temporary Protective Status nations, including Haiti, whose people he condemned as the type of immigrants not wanted in this country.

Republicans were encouraged to wear red, white, and blue as a symbol of patriotism. According to USA Today, “A female member emailed her colleagues saying it was an idea from a constituent ‘to show our support for the flag, and the country and the troops and to be a contrast,’ Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., told USA TODAY . . . . McSally was the first female fighter pilot to fight in combat and said that the State of the Union should be a celebration of ‘the accomplishments of the past and a vision for the future and I think it’s something we should all be honoring and participating and be positive about as opposed to turning it into some sort of partisan spectacle.’”

The one outfit that has drawn the most attention and the most speculation as to symbolic meaning is the cream (not white—not after Labor Day) Christian Dior pantsuit worn by Melania Trump, who arrived separately from her husband. Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times termed it “the final piece of what appeared to be an unprecedentedly politicized use of dress during a State of the Union.” The contrast with what was worn by most others in attendance was noticeable, especially given the white suits worn the year before, and by Hillary Clinton. Some interpret the First Lady’s choice of outfit in light of recent stories about her husband’s infidelity with Stormy Daniels just months after the birth of the Trumps’ son. Friedman continues, “But given that clothes became a symbolic dividing line during this State of the Union like seemingly never before . . . it’s hard to believe that the potential (and, indeed, probable) interpretations of her choice escaped the first lady. And especially given the almost elated reception that greeted her decision to wear a bright pink pussy bow blouse for an appearance during the campaign after her husband’s previous public sexual shaming, the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape in which he made vulgar remarks about women. If she has paid any attention at all to public reaction (or if her team has), she cannot be ignorant of the fact that when she seems to use clothing as a subversive tool to suggest what she presumably cannot say, it provokes a groundswell of support. Though it was unclear at the time whether Mrs. Trump really understood the implications of that blouse choice, wearing a white suit to the State of the Union indicates that, indeed, she did.”

Though Trump delivered this year’s State of the Union, the symbolism of attendees’ attire ensured that their voices, too, were heard.

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.