If a face mask has become the pandemic’s defining symbol, has the colour white become shorthand for Ivanka Trump’s handling of it?
It began in June with a $1,500 (£1,200) white MaxMara handbag. And it continued on Monday with an untucked white shirt, worn to distribute food boxes in Washington. It was there, too, last week, on a billowy white blouse when she used Instagram to promote Goya beans after its CEO, Robert Unanue, declared the US “blessed to have [Donald Trump] as our leader”. And it’s been there on her many, many flights aboard Air Force One.
If it seems far-fetched to think that wearing white is a strategy, consider this: Ivanka has worn white in every single public appearance since the start of June, around the time lockdown was eased and the Trumps returned in earnest to their political duties. Labour Day dress codes aside, she has conjured up an image of blowdried, country club, moneyed power. It represents the sort of privilege that has enabled people like her to move through the ranks – without qualification, without getting dirty and, of course, without catching the virus.
Take the white funnel-neck dress she wore to a meeting for a new White House-backed advertising campaign which aims to encourage people who are “unemployed” or “unhappy” in their jobs to “find something new”. Or the untouchable white Emilia Wickstead skirt and blouse, paired with a white quilted Chanel handbag (and matching white quilted mask) which she wore after the campaign’s backlash. Or even the two white sleeveless shift-dresses she wore for internal flights aboard Air Force One (which begs the question, who flies in white when there’s Big Tom and turbulence? Someone whose private plane has loos roomy enough for a full costume change, that’s who).
It’s there in the details too. The untucking of the white shirt on Monday says “I’m with you”. The tucked white blouse of Goya-gate says “I’m not, which is why I have the power to promote these beans”. At that now famous church-based photocall in June, as she walked through a park only just cleared of peaceful protesters using violent means, a lone (masked) figure among the suits, Ivanka’s incredibly large white handbag took on several new meanings.
Did she bring a large bag in order to transport Trump’s Bible? Or did she have the bag with her already? Did she know Nancy Pelosi’s now famous red coat worn to a televised Oval Office meeting with Trump in 2018 was also by MaxMara, and that it proved so popular the brand reissued it despite it being 10 seasons old? Or was she simply hoping to use the bag-as-distraction, to literally whitewash the rubber bullets that presumably lined the path on the way to the church?
White’s stock has risen considerably under the Trump administration, on both sides of the aisle. We all remember would-be leader Hillary Clinton in one white pantsuit, and Nancy Pelosi attempting to impeach the president in another. As colours go, it’s often used to advance a diplomatic point, particularly if you’re a woman. A memorable photocall at the 2019 State of the Union saw the Democratic women of the 116th Congress wearing white to mark the record number of women winning house seats and in protest of Trump’s policies. White honoured the suffragists, who themselves wore white dresses to encourage media coverage in the newspapers (which then, of course, used black and white for photographs). As the self-appointed representative of working women, Ivanka has often used white to align herself with her sex’s struggle.
And then there’s the pandemic. The colour might have prosaic associations – peace and chastity, that sort of thing – but right now it says one thing: “I am clean.” And deployed within the administration’s mishandling of the whole thing, it’s a very effective tool of soft power. It certainly feels harder to castigate her when she has visibly sidestepped any typically political wardrobe trappings.
Visuals matter – and Ivanka’s say less about her politics and more about using a political-adjacent platform to sell herself – Ivanka the philanthropist, Ivanka the defiant, Ivanka the icon. But then she probably understands that better than most.