Kaitlan Collins, in a White Suit, Takes on Trump

She knew what she was in for: the talking over her, the bluster, the alternate version of history, the controversy. She was as prepared as possible. And she was dressed for the arena.

When Kaitlan Collins interviewed Donald J. Trump in his first appearance on CNN since 2016, moderating the Republican town hall on Wednesday, she did so in a pristine white pantsuit, thus immediately joining a long line of women who have gone face to face with the former president in that symbolic armor.

Indeed, as Mr. Trump sat onstage in Saint Anselm College in his white shirt and bright red tie, his trademark navy suit with one button pulling across the middle and an American flag pin on his lapel, and Ms. Collins sat across from him in her white suit and black shell top, the stark image presented its own semiological road map and moment of déjà vu.

As Ms. Collins is both a former White House correspondent and the co-host of a morning show, where how you appear and what colors you wear is actually part of the job, there’s little doubt she understood the import of what she was doing. Or donning.

After all, in Washington, ever since Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, the white pantsuit, with its roots in the suffragist tradition, its associations with women’s rights and women’s voices, has become practically a ceremonial public expression of female strength.

Kamala Harris spoke outside the Chase Center in Delaware after winning the election on Nov. 7, 2020.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Groups of women wore it to go to the polls in 2016. The women of the House wore it for the State of the Union in 2019. Kamala Harris wore it when she first officially appeared as vice president-elect in 2020. Nancy Pelosi wore it to announce that the House would begin the process of impeaching Mr. Trump in 2019 and to announce that she would not be seeking re-election as speaker in 2022. And, as anyone who has followed Ms. Pelosi’s career knows, she is a master color tactician, choosing a flaming orange coat to confront President Trump and a fuchsia dress to pose among a sea of dark suits when she regained the speaker’s gavel.

Melania Trump arriving at President Trump’s first State of the Union address on Jan. 30, 2018.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Even Melania Trump wore a white pantsuit when she made her first public appearance after the Stormy Daniels scandal at the State of Union in 2018. (And if you think that choice was a coincidence, one of her advisers confirmed to me that it was not.) It has become so ubiquitous a sartorial statement so quickly, so embedded in our visual library, that it’s almost a cliché.

That’s the power of the immediately recognizable symbol. It’s almost impossible to see a woman in a white pantsuit on a major public occasion now and not think: Aha! Alignment with history.

In that, it was also an implicit underscoring of the statement Ms. Collins made at the beginning of the town hall event, that no deal had been made with the candidate to encourage him to appear, and no guidelines had been agreed upon. It separated her from her subject from the start.

Not that either the suit or any of Ms. Collins’s actual statements — the repeated attempts to make Mr. Trump answer major questions about Ukraine and abortion, to correct his falsehoods about the 2020 election, to check facts — were powerful enough to stop the Trump steamroller (or to stop the criticism of CNN for hosting the event).

Given that Ms. Collins is rumored to be in line for the evening anchor slot on CNN, which would put her in the position of covering the next election cycle, it was also, perhaps, a foreshadowing of things to come.

Back to top button