In January 2018, most of us had never heard the phrase “brooch warfare.” Pete Davidson had not yet spent $93,000 on an engagement ring; in fact, he was not yet dating the woman to whom it would be given. The general public didn’t equate Paul Manafort with jackets made of thousands of dollars’ worth of exotic bird leather. But then the rest of the year happened, and suddenly, we’re supposed to make sense of it all.
The news is made up of people doing things that other people deem newsworthy, and those people are, for the most part, wearing clothes. Which means that a large portion of the news we consume is scaffolded by fashion items.
But then there are the other times, the times when the clothing transcends actual events and becomes a story of its own. Whether it was a protest in the form of color-blocking, a somehow malevolent eyewear trend, or a soccer jersey that became a symbol for so much more, these are the 11 items of clothing that explained what the hell even went down this year.
The dresses that made best-dressed lists irrelevant
This year’s Golden Globes was the first major award show after Hollywood’s existential reckoning in the fall of 2017, when Harvey Weinstein and ultimately hundreds of other powerful public figures were accused of serial sexual assault, harassment, and rape. Any acknowledgment of it on a public stage was bound to be tricky — celebrities are not always our best activists, and red-carpet reporters aren’t necessarily prepared to discuss sexual misconduct — but when the newly launched Time’s Up organized a show of solidarity in the form of black dresses, the result was, for the most part, successful.
In response, the discussions on the red carpet started with “Why are you wearing black?” versus the traditional “Who are you wearing?” Aside from a few awkward interviews, it also succeeded by putting a spotlight on Tarana Burke, the actual founder of the Me Too movement, who arrived alongside Michelle Williams.
The dress that made a duchess out of Meghan Markle
On May 19, Meghan Markle stepped out of a Rolls-Royce Phantom and put to rest months of rumors and speculation about what she would wear on the day she became a duchess. Though nearly everything she wears had made headlines throughout her relationship with Prince Harry, her boatneck, three-quarter-sleeve bridal gown was notable because of what it wasn’t: There was no lace, no tulle, no beading, no embroidery.
Instead of going full princess, Markle tapped British-born designer Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy to design the strikingly minimalist dress and paired it with simple, understated makeup and her signature “messy” bun (which wasn’t even really “messy” at all). The look introduced the world to the decidedly low-key Duchess of Sussex and set the tone for her entire public image.
Markle had already defied royal British norms simply by being Meghan Markle: a divorced biracial American who was also a professional actress. But even after she became the girlfriend and then fiancée of a prince, she continued to break royal fashion protocol, whether it was through her hairstyle, her hats, or the colors she wore. And though her fashion sense as the Duchess of Sussex is surely more conservative than it used to be, that might turn out to be a good thing: Markle is still new to the role of duchess, and for now, her style seeks to emphasize that she belongs there.
The jersey that won the World Cup
In a year of altogether very boring jerseys, Nigeria’s were the only ones worth rooting for. The Nike-designed green, white and black kits, whose chevrons were a reference to eagle wings as well as an homage to the team’s 1994 jerseys, were preordered by 3 million people and sold out in stores in actual minutes. Dubbed the “Naija” after the nickname for the “new Nigeria,” the jersey transcended the sport of soccer and became an instant streetwear icon.
2018 was a strange year in which to hold a worldwide sporting event, and the fact that it took place in Russia, where athletes have experienced racism and homophobia, didn’t help the already strained relationship the country has with many others. Nigeria was never expected to win the World Cup, but the team was by far the most fashion-forward on and off the field, thanks to dapper coordinated outfits and the best jerseys in the tournament. In an event where people fought over basically everything, Nigeria’s stylistic dominance was inarguable.
The first lady’s fashion faux pas
When she wasn’t decorating the White House in seemingly Stephen King-inspired Christmas decorations, Melania Trump spent much of 2018 causing controversy with her clothing. Following a year in which she was criticized for wearing stilettos to visit Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, in the summer of 2018 she ignited the internet by wearing a jacket that read “I really don’t care, do u?” en route to meet with detained migrant children at the US-Mexico border.
Her spokesperson claimed at the time that “there was no hidden message,” but President Trump then tweeted that the jacket was in fact directed at the “fake news media.” In an interview months later with ABC News, Melania echoed her husband: “It was for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticizing me,” she said. “And I want to show them that I don’t care. You could criticize. Whatever you wanna say, you can say. But it will not stop me to do what I feel is right.”
Then during an October trip to Kenya, she drew criticism once again for wearing a pith helmet, a symbol of European colonialism. Melania’s outfits are often the clearest and most immediate communication we get from the first lady, but as with any visual communication, it’s easy for two people to see the same jacket and take away vastly different meanings. In 2018, it seemed as though Melania’s fashion choices were a Rorschach test for how people felt about Melania the person.
The most hatable shape of sunglasses
Every year has its crop of widely maligned fashion trends, and this year’s was an insidious eyewear shape that returned from a very specific period in the late ’90s and early 2000s. When Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Zoe Kravitz flooded Instagram with photos of themselves wearing comically tiny sunglasses this spring, the non-professionally hot among us were immediately seized with dread, knowing that the tiny sunglasses infiltration was nigh.
You can blame a few high-profile designers for the trend, but the real culprit likely has a lot more to do with the fact that cool young people are often drawn to trends that were originally popular when they were too young to take part in them. And after more than a decade of huge “hater-blocker” shades, it was only a matter of time before the pendulum swung the other way. As for why we hate them so much? Well, that’s probably because they’re so ugly that wearing them is a power move: You have to already be hot in order to look hot wearing them.
The ostrich jacket that defined a fall from grace
The trial of Paul Manafort in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation offered a rare peek inside the wardrobe of Trump’s disgraced former campaign chair. Among the photos released of Manafort’s many lavish items of clothing (possibly paid for with laundered money) was a $15,000 jacket made of ostrich leather. “In offering vivid details about Mr. Manafort’s thirst for the finer things in life, the prosecutors sought to paint him as a man driven by greed,” wrote the New York Times.
The ostrich jacket became somewhat of a metaphor for the current administration’s fixation on luxury, and specifically a gaudy aesthetic that one design expert coined “dictator chic.” Though the writer was referring to architecture and interiors, the ungodly expensive jacket surely recalls “dictator chic” in clothing form.
The engagement ring that never got a wedding
The most whirlwind romance of 2018 was surely between minuscule pop diva Ariana Grande and lanky comedian Pete Davidson, who got together in late May and were engaged about a month later. In the meantime, they adopted a pet pig, got matching tattoos, moved into a $16 million apartment together, and even had a whole song devoted to their coupledom on Ariana’s album Sweetener.
But when #Grandson broke up in October, there was one question on everyone’s minds: What happens to the $93,000 ring?
Though TMZ reported that Grande had already returned the pear-shaped dazzler, the ring became a metaphor for the obvious financial gap between the two. Throughout their short but heavily publicized relationship, the fact that Grande makes more money than Davidson was a major point of interest, which Davidson himself even joked about to GQ and on Saturday Night Live. That’s why when news of their demise broke, the ring was a punchline for jokes about Davidson’s apparent need to pay his bills — which, of course, only served to perpetuate stereotypes about who’s supposed to be making the money in heterosexual relationships.
The suit that asked for forgiveness
Facebook’s terrible year didn’t end with the Cambridge Analytica data breach — just a few months later, we’d find out the tech company possibly hired a right-wing PR firm to peddle anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to smear its critics — but it’s the scandal that founder Mark Zuckerberg had to answer for first.
Cambridge Analytica wasn’t your average Facebook mini scandal: It was a tipping point in consumers’ concern about data privacy. Though the European Union enacted strict new privacy laws this May, the US is still struggling with the question of how exactly to protect American users’ data.
During his testimony before the Senate in April, Zuckerberg marked the occasion by wearing an uncharacteristic crisp suit. Though he’s built a reputation around rather schlubby uniform dressing, his navy suit screamed, “I’m sorry,” even if he’d have to keep apologizing for the rest of the year.
The suit that asked to be believed
What Christine Blasey Ford wore during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh shouldn’t — and didn’t — matter nearly as much as her words. But dressing for an occasion when the entire world is scrutinizing your every move is a fraught activity, particularly when it involves allegations of sexual assault against a high-profile figure. On the day of the hearing, protesters wore teal as an homage to Anita Hill, who wore the color during her historic 1991 testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Ford wore a navy blazer with a matching navy shirt that said nothing and everything: By blending in with her surroundings, it kept the focus on her testimony rather than what she was wearing, which, so often in cases of sexual assault allegations, doesn’t happen.
The superhero movie that turned into a celebration of African fashion
One doesn’t usually equate Marvel stans with being particularly fashionable on days that are not Comic-Con, but the movie studio’s biggest domestic success of 2018 turned out to be much bigger than superheroes. As the first comic book movie featuring a cast of primarily black leads, Black Panther took inspiration from ethnic dress all over the continent of Africa, from groups such as the Maasai, Tuareg, Akan, Mursi, and Ndebele. And for its premiere, black fans celebrated by wearing their own African and African-inspired fashions.
“This is more than just a movie for us,” one attendee told Racked in February. “This is about being acknowledged for something that is not directly tied to slavery or some sort of white suppression. Black Panther is about black people getting a chance to be themselves. ... Black Panther gave blacks a chance to let loose and wear their most obnoxious, vibrant outfit without being judged.”
The jewelry that introduced us to the subtle art of brooch warfare
It is true that Queen Elizabeth II often wears specific brooches for specific occasions: the True Lover’s Knot for royal weddings; gifts from various countries at state functions with said country, for instance. But is it true that she wore brooches to subtly shade President Trump during his visit to the UK?
That’s what royal fashion fiends suggested in July when the queen wore the “American state visit brooch,” which was given to her by the Obamas in 2011, on the first day of Trump’s arrival. On the second, she wore a brooch from the governor general of Canada, and on the third, she wore the diamond teardrop brooch her mother wore during the 1952 funeral of her husband, King George VI. Though it’s impossible to say whether the three brooches amounted to anything remotely relating to #resistance, the speculation, at least, was fun to watch.
Whether it was a possibly shady brooch or a jacket that defined the aesthetics of an administration, the clothing items that explain 2018 cover the silly, the somber, and the strange of the past 12 months. It’s so often easy to dismiss style as a superfluous part of the news cycle, but it’s increasingly impossible to separate clothing from its broader political implications. And in 2019, that’s not likely to change.