Where is the line between culturally appropriate dress and cultural appropriation?
It was hard to look at Ivanka Trump’s wardrobe during her India trip this week and not ask the question. After all, from her opening mother-of-pearl embroidered jacket to her final kurta dress, she swerved from her usual pencil skirts and high heels to make her clothes part of the content of her communications. And there were many: two and a half days, six looks, all excitedly chronicled by local style watchers.
Indeed, Ms. Trump, in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana, to lead the United States delegation to the eighth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, had begun making headlines with fashion even before she arrived. Critics pointed out what they called the hypocrisy of Ivanka Trump (the individual) in making a speech on the importance of female empowerment and equality, when Ivanka Trump (the company) is believed to employ low-wage workers in countries such as … India.
Ms. Trump did not address the issue during her various speeches and panels, but she did use dress in a notable way.
Unlike her stepmother, Melania Trump, who seemed uninterested in leveraging fashion for political capital during her tour through Asia with President Trump, Ivanka Trump seemed to have embraced the idea wholeheartedly. If, at least at the beginning, a little one-dimensionally.
On Monday evening, for example, she made her initial appearance in a Tory Burch “Sylvia” jacket: a black style covered in mother-of-pearl embroidery that called to mind Indian prints and architecture. As it happens, Hyderabad is historically known as “the city of pearls.”
Then, on Tuesday, Ms. Trump donned a green brocade Erdem tea-length dress with pink and yellow flowers that some commentators likened to traditional Indian anarkali style, complete with keyhole neckline. (Some others likened it to wallpaper).
And that evening, though breathless rumors had abounded earlier in the week that she was going to wear a sari gown specially made by the Indian designer Neeta Lulla, a favorite of Bollywood stars, in fact she wore another Tory Burch creation: a long-sleeved, round-necked gown with stylized gold floral embroidery that again had an ersatz Indian theme.
According to a spokeswoman for Ms. Lulla, the sari gown had been made as a welcome gesture. It would have been a pretty big statement if Ms. Trump had worn it, but all the Tory Burch was also interesting, given Ms. Burch’s very vocal support of female entrepreneurs — her foundation has a fellows program geared specifically to support women starting their own businesses — and her brand’s contemporary-ish price points. (Admittedly, the dress costs $3,498, but it’s cheaper than the Dior that Melania Trump favors; plus Ms. Trump wore Zara mules repeatedly during the trip, which is relatively budget-conscious of her).
Not that Tory Burch (the company) seemed particularly excited about Ms. Trump’s patronage. “We don’t work with Ivanka at all,” a spokeswoman said by email when asked about it.
Though Indian style watchers were generally positive about the dinner dress and pleased that Ms. Trump had abandoned her usual garb for more demure, covered-up styles, there was some griping. DailyO, an online opinion site from the India Today Group, deemed it all a “superficial assimilation of culture” that was compounded by the “floral gown that looked like a ‘me-too’ of a Kashmiri pheran.”
Bandana Tewari, the editor at large of Vogue India, said, “If Ivanka’s clothes are to be an acknowledgment of an ancient and rich culture like ours, especially as she arrives as a dignitary, then the sartorial ‘tribute’ should be authentic in its intention. We would rather see her wear a hand-woven sari made in our country or a handmade gown made in her own country. But to hybridize the two, in an era of unfiltered diversity, is a superfluous nod to half-acceptance.”
And therein lies the problem.
While on the one hand it is nice to see someone in the Trump administration make an effort to leverage the possibilities of tactical dress, the interpretation was largely through the lens of the outsider looking in. The selections had echoes of orientalism and ornamentation — just as Ms. Trump’s choice of a kimono-inspired dress, complete with obi belt, by the Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz, did in Japan earlier this month. And just as Melania Trump’s Gucci gown with faux Chinese embroidery did during the Trumps’ state visit to China.
Instead of wearing work by a designer that spoke to the nuances of the country (a tactic adopted often by Michelle Obama, for example), Ms. Trump opted, at least initially, for the most obvious: clothes by outsiders who dipped into their fantasy of India as opposed to its reality.
Which is probably why the dress she wore to a session on Wednesday, by the London-based, Bombay-born designer Saloni Lodha, a red floral print with black lace trim at the sleeves, stood out.
As Ms. Lodha says on her website: “I always keep in mind my Indian heritage while designing but don’t translate it literally into our clothes. I think the way we, as a brand, celebrate bold colors and patterns is our way of bringing the spirit of India into the collections.”
“Spirit,” instead of, say, stereotype.
Still, from there Ms. Trump went even further: After she appeared in a cream-and-black lace dress by the Indonesian designer Biyan Wanaatmadja to tour the Golconda Fort in Telangana State, she chose to make her departure in a traditional kurta dress in ivory and green.
She looked “like an Indian Barbie doll” the news outlet India Today said, with apparent approval. Whether that was actually the last impression Ms. Trump wanted to leave on a trip that was supposed to be about “women first” is not entirely clear.