WASHINGTON, November 20, 2016 — Don’t shed any tears for Melania Trump. She will have several dresses for her husband’s inauguration and his inaugural balls, and the odds are excellent that if you own dresses, hers will be much nicer than yours.
But no thanks to Sophie Theallet.
Theallet, who’s designed clothes for Michelle Obama, announced that she won’t do that for Melania. Nor, she hopes, will her fellow designers. If Melania wants a Theallet gown, she’ll have to buy it off the rack.
Designers often provide clothes for high profile figures for free. It’s a form of advertising that can pay huge dividends. And just as Abercrombie and Fitch didn’t want fat women in their clothes, designers are sensitive about who wears their outfits. They won’t give them to just any celebrity.
Theallet couldn’t stand the idea of her brand being associated in any way with a Trump.
This isn’t just about freebies, though; even if Melania pays, she can only have a Theallet creation off the rack, not a special creation. According to Theallet, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideas.” She says she “will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next first lady.”
Theallet’s announcement is preemptive; there’s no evidence that Melania actually wanted a Theallet gown. Her letter is a political manifesto, and a plea for a general boycott of the new first lady: “I encourage my fellow designers to do the same. Integrity is our only true currency.”
Compared to weighty news like the Russian test of powerful new ICBMs and Vice President-elect Mike Pence being booed at “Hamilton,” the Theallet-Trump flap seems insignificant and petty, but it raises some questions more important than mere fashion, rising almost to the level of cake.
Wedding cake. If you own a bakery and have cookies and cakes in the display case, almost everyone agrees that you should sell them to anyone who has money (and shirt and shoes) who wants to buy them. If your bakery designs special occasion cakes, many people think you should sell them on the same terms.
But not everyone.
Some people, including some bakers, argue that they should be allowed not to produce wedding cakes for same-sex couples. Those bakers might not object to gays or lesbians going into their bakeries, buying cakes “off-the-rack,” so to speak, and dressing them up as they like to do with as they please at events of their choosing. But design and specially produce one for a same-sex wedding? No.
Bakers have suffered for that position. Courts have ruled that bakeries don’t have the option to decline to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, and have imposed heavy fines on bakers who trade in that currency.
Does this thinking apply to fashion design?
There are clear differences between first ladies and gay couples. Political spouses aren’t a protected legal class, and while one can choose whether to marry Donald Trump, one can’t usually choose to be gay, black or Albanian.
Race, sex, age and nationality are protected classes under Title VII. Sexual orientation is not, though it is protected under a growing number of state and local laws. Not every class protected under Title VII is imposed on people by birth or time. Religion is a protected class.
It would be grotesque to deny Melania a dress just because she was a Muslim or a Baptist. Yet many who would demand that bakers and couturiers not discriminate against gays and Muslims will have no problem with Thiallet’s brusque “no dress for you” to a Republican first lady.
The issue here isn’t whether gays and first ladies are analogous. This tempest in a tea parlor does ask us to think about freedom of association and the right to refuse service, though. Anyone who can afford them and has the desire to wear them can buy a Theallet costume off the rack at a local shopping mall, but Theallet should have every right to decide who gets one of her custom creations and who will represent her brand to the world.
Should bakers have that right? Some of their creations can cost more than a Dior gown and involve as much labor to create. Not everyone who wants and can afford one can have one. Sometimes they have to say firmly, “no cake for you!” They just can’t decide on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. But then, how is religion fundamentally different from political ideology?
And what if the baker, like the couturier, bases the decision on his own political philosophy and not on religious conviction?
For some people these questions are easy. You can discriminate on the basis of political philosophy but not religion or sexual orientation. That begs the question, “why?” Or you should be able to discriminate on any basis you please, freedom of association trumping any other consideration.
Or any customer with the cash has a right to the goods, even if those involve artistic creation and an implicit endorsement by the seller.
Neither Theallet nor the baker want their brand associated with certain ideas. Their particular cases seem petty, but the principle is not. Why we should distinguish those ideas in deciding whether to punish the seller is an inconsistency in our ways of viewing the issue. Perhaps inconsistency is the best we can manage.