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; another example of the way in which this president and his family continue to define “appropriate” their own way; and an excuse for partisan name-calling.
Or so became apparent Tuesday morning when President Trump and his wife left the White House to fly to Texas for a briefing on the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, and Mrs. Trump appeared on the lawn in black pegged trousers, black shades, an olive green bomber jacket — and her stilettos, now a trademark. Very much the same kind of shoes, in other words, she has been wearing since long before she joined her husband on the campaign trail.
Though by the time the plane had landed Mrs. Trump looked altogether more grounded, in white sneakers and crisp white shirt, with a ponytail pulled through a black baseball cap emblazoned with the word “FLOTUS,” during her time in the air the original shoes went from being mere footwear to objects of vilification thanks to social media’s specific kind of alchemy.
In response to the critical reaction, Stephanie Grisham, Mrs. Trump’s communications director, emailed the following statement: “It’s sad that we have an active and ongoing natural disaster in Texas, and people are worried about her shoes.”
That’s a fair point, to a certain extent. Certainly there was a backlash to the backlash, with Chelsea Handler, for example, being attacked in turn for her tweet attacking Mrs. Trump’s spikes.
Not to mention some partisan crowing about the sneakers.
But to dismiss all this as merely much ado about heels, or an example of the pettiness of our divided electorate, is to ignore the reality of the current conversation around the president — to pretend not to notice how sensitized everyone has become to his unpredictable reactions to major events, and to deny the power of the telling detail to invite applause, condemnation or misinterpretation.
It is precisely the superficial nature of clothing, the fact that garments are immediately accessible to all, that makes them the go-to stand-in for more nuanced, complicated emotions and issues.