As the adage goes, a picture can say a thousand words. But in the Instagram age, tags and hashtags can say more — and oftentimes in a way that doesn’t speak well of their users.
This is was made painfully clear on Monday night, when Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, posted a photo on Instagram of she and her husband disembarking what looked like a private United States government plane with the caption: “Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #beautiful #countryside.”
Left there, it could have read as a relatively average photo of politicians doing an average politician-y thing; mundane enough to swipe past in your feed without a second glance. But when Linton also decided to tag #rolandmouret pants, #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf, and #valentinorockstudheels, her image went from being a potentially harmless one about a visit to the Kentucky #countryside, to an anything-but-humble brag about her wealth.
Naturally, Linton’s post went viral, raising concerns about who our government officials are (Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is a former Goldman Sachs executive); how these people are spending their time and America’s tax dollars; as well as the age-old question of what politicians say with their wardrobe choices — whether they’re relatable, like Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s, or inaccessible to most Americans, like Melania Trump’s recent $2,300 Delpozo dress.
One Instagram user named Jenni Miller from Portland, Oregon, expressed her feelings on the matter with a comment on Linton’s photo: “Glad we could pay for your little getaway,” she wrote, adding her own hashtag: “#deplorable.”
It was then that Linton’s Instagram behavior went from deplorable to downright mean, when she posted a lengthy, condescending rant in response to Miller’s comment that only further charged their class divide. (ICYMI, you can read the full thing here.)
Linton’s Instagram has since been made private, and she issued an apologetic statement on Tuesday “exclusively” with Town & Country magazine. (Where she also shared photos of her wedding diamonds in June.) But at the end of the day, this whole incident has us thinking twice not only about the backbone of our politicians, but also about the social politics of tagging and hashtagging brands today.
Is there a right way to tag and a wrong way to tag fashion brands? And if so, where do we draw the line?
When the Cut reached out to Miller on Monday for comment about what sparked her war with Linton, she replied: “Honestly, I was disgusted when I saw her original post with all of the designers listed.” Adding: “She was visiting one of our poorest states, and had the audacity to advertise for elite, foreign designers who probably give her things she could afford anyway.”
In this context, tagging expensive brand names was in direct conflict with the very people Linton was maybe trying to reach with her post, proving there’s not only a right and wrong way to tag, but also a time and a place.
As the Working Families Party also pointed out on Twitter, tags of this nature carry meaning in the larger context of history, too. Because Linton’s husband has a reputation for being a “foreclosure bankster,” this may mean that others’ misfortune allowed Linton to afford such expensive fashion pieces in the first place.
These details reveal that Linton is not just another wealthy person or “influencer” harmlessly flaunting their expensive wardrobe on Instagram; she’s the wife of a politician, plus the author of both insensitive comments and novels in her own right, as Jezebel pointed out in an article last year. Therefore, Linton’s hashtags, whatever they’re about, carry more serious baggage than the average Joe’s.
But even though I’m no Treasury Secretary’s wife, as someone who loves fashion and feels personally compelled to share my clothes on Instagram, the ethics of tagging brands is something I find myself thinking about constantly. If I bought a certain Gucci bag vintage on TheRealReal, for example, does it make it better? What if I think my followers would appreciate knowing about a small store like Sincerely Tommy? Good intentions get muddled though when brands are involved – especially in the age of #SponCon – because they signify something so much larger than you and your username.
If we’re really being honest with ourselves though, 99.9 percent of the time, we tag brand names because we want to show off in some way, not because we want to connect with other Hermès scarf owners out there, or perform some public service. We know exactly what we’re doing, and no amount of #countryside tags or ironic captions can shroud this human impulse. Instagram is also perhaps one of the only spaces where flaunting wealth is normalized, and not necessarily taboo, which is arguably why we can’t get enough of it.
On the flip side, we also withhold brand names on Instagram when we’re made to feel embarrassed by them; ashamed that our studded pumps are knockoffs from Steve Madden, not Valentino. Which is all to say that despite its somewhat clerical nature, tagging photos is an action intrinsically tied to who we are and how we feel, whether it’s pride, insecurity, or malevolence.
Linton’s high-fashion hashtags may have shown the world how not to label a post, but a certain lack thereof perhaps says more: She failed to tag her Hermès Birkin, the most offensively expensive item of the bunch.