Fashion and the Immigration Debate Meet in Washington

Fashion and the Immigration Debate Meet in Washington

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The ongoing immigration debate in Washington is often a stranger to both class and humor. Tuesday was the exception.

At the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, fifteen candidates for U.S. citizenship from fifteen different countries officially became citizens after taking the Oath of Allegiance, which was administered by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

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It wasn’t just about them—and it wasn’t just their families in the audience. Sharing the stage with America’s newest citizens were some familiar faces: Among them, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and fashion icon, Ralph Lauren--who was honored for his efforts to preserve the Star-Spangled Banner.  

“Our flag has always been an inspiration to me, and now it will be an inspiration for generations to come. On its 200th anniversary, I am especially proud to see it exhibited in all its glory,” said Lauren upon receiving the award. “It is a constant symbol of what makes America great—our ideals, our courage and our faith in the future.” Yes, it was a rally ‘round the flag kind of day.

Both Clinton, wearing a custom-made Ralph Lauren pantsuit, and Lauren, sporting a classic pinstripe suit—dressed for the occasion.

But team Lauren-Clinton dates back nearly two decades. As part of her "Save America's Treasures" tour, the then First Lady and designer joined forces in 1998 to preserve the original American flag that inspired the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1812.  

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“Such an enduring symbol of our country,” recalled Clinton in her remarks, “was hanging in tatters.” She knew the preservation of the flag would cost millions, but that the cost of not doing it was “incalculable.”

Fashion icon to the rescue. At the time, the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation pledged a $10 million to preserve the flag, and donated an additional $3 million to promote public awareness about Clinton’s project. Lauren said he got involved with the flag, “not for profits,” but because he “believed in it and the history of America.”

His own history in America is one that might sound familiar to many immigrant families—at least, the first part of it. The youngest of four children, Lauren was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents from Belarus. “Watching my mother take the [citizenship] test was scary,” he recalled. But being an American, he said, gave him the opportunity to follow something he “believed was worthwhile, that came from the heart.”

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 Clinton spoke of America as “a nation of immigrants” and a place where outsiders are given the “freedom to pursue their version of the American dream.”   

 Lauren’s version of the American dream started with selling ties in the Empire State Building. And today, as Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough put it, “Ralph Lauren is an American brand and a global brand for America.”

Lauren has built his multi-billion-dollar fashion empire by recognizing and capturing the essence of the American dream. He’s woven it into the fabric of his brand—a brand that’s about selling a certain lifestyle. It’s the turquoise jewelry on the Native Americans sitting in Sante Fe’s square. It’s the Kenneddy-esque family sailing off the coast of Maine. It’s the curios and daring women driving Land Rover Defenders on safari in Kenya. It’s the prep school kids in American flag sweaters. In his own words, “it’s about timelessness and about style. A sort of non-fashion statement that’s very stylish. That’s what I’m about.”  

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In closing, Clinton echoed something she said before embarking on the 1998 tour: “One of the most powerful ways for us to imagine America's future is to preserve what we truly value of our past--our monuments, our art and documents and historic sites.''

Upon accepting the award, Lauren spoke of one historic site in particular—the Lincoln memorial, where he went last night with his family. He told the audience that he walked up to Lincoln and looked at the former president’s shoes hanging over the marble ledge.

 Why? “To try and see if they had a label on them.” 

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Reilly Dowd is a senior writer at The Fiscal Times. Based in Washington, D.C., she covers national politics, economic policy, technology, and elections. She has previously worked at Al Jazeera America, SnagFilms, ABC News, CNN and in the Obama White House.