How Melania Took the Fantasy Out of First Lady Fashion
FLOTUS style used to be an escape. In 2018, Melania Trump, and a certain jacket, changed all of that.
As the blood red Christmas trees that deck the White House halls herald, Melania Trump’s second year as first lady will soon come to an end.
It has been a puzzling 12 months for those who follow Melania’s fashion choices. No matter how many times Melania (or her communications team) attempts to guide the public to “focus on what she does, not what she wears," the former model seems to value her privacy and say and do publicly very little.
Attention is then inevitably focused on what Melania wears, which this year included the notorious $39 “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket she wore to visit detained undocumented immigrant children at the Texas border.
“It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message,” her spokesperson Stephanie Grisham said. “After today's important visit to Texas, I hope this isn't what the media is going to choose to focus on.” (Donald Trump later wrote on Twitter that the extremely un-hidden sentiment was aimed at the press.)
Four months after she was photographed in the jacket, Melania reiterated to ABC’s Tom Llamas that the jacket’s message was directed at “the left-wing media.”
“It’s obvious I didn’t wear the jacket for the children,” she said, shaking her head. “I wore the jacket to go on and off the plane... You could criticize whatever you want to do, but it will not stop me from doing what I feel is right.”
She then repeated what has become her catchphrase: “I would prefer that (people) would focus more on what I do and on my initiatives than what I wear.” She said these words during her trip to Africa, during which she wore an outdated pith hat, which was seen by some as a symbol of colonial oppression.
If you want to draw any conclusions from Melania's wardrobe on a normal day, good luck. For the vast majority of her time as first lady, Melania has stepped out in some variation of the same buttoned-up, belted outfit that communicates very little.
She seems to gravitate towards sterile-looking fabrics such as canvas or khaki. Her preferred silhouette of big shoulders and long lines (see: the pink Dior suit she wore to meet the queen) is sharp, clean, and agendaless. When she does pick a pattern, it’s a standard gingham (Ralph Lauren on July 4th) or simple stripe print (April dinner at Mar-a-Lago).
Even when it comes to evening wear, Melania sticks to autopilot. For special events, she pulls dresses that are the laziest manifestation of fancy dressing. For a state dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, she stuck with a sequined Chanel gown. It looked like a dry cleaner’s worst nightmare. Like the Trump Hotel’s gilded doors, it was shiny but substance-less.
Google “Melania Trump fashion,” and you will find many galleries from mainstream women’s magazines dedicated to documenting her style, as style writers did with her predecessor, Michelle Obama.
But unlike Obama, who was just like us in J.Crew and Michael Kors, or Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, who brought a determinedly business-casual style to their time in the East Wing, the former model remains an outsider in the fashion world. Almost two years in to her tenure, she has yet to sit for any magazine covers. (Michelle Obama graced Vogue’s three times.)
Upon Trump’s inauguration, many designers spoke out against styling Melania. The minor boycott does not seem to faze her, as she seems to have curated a team of close fashion allies.
According to Page Six’s Richard Johnson, the first lady relies on her younger sister Ines Knauss for style advice, “quietly (coming) to New York” twice a month to sift through potential outfits à la rom-com heroines in a makeover montage.
Along with Knauss, Melania has found a fierce friend in Hervé Pierre, the French-born designer who is responsible for her off-the-shoulder cream inauguration gown and the white hat she wore to meet Brigitte Macron in April, which garnered comparisons to Beyonce’s “Formation” look.
At the beginning of the year, after news of her husband's alleged affair with Stormy Daniels broke, there were a few promising signs that Melania attempted to shed her ever-present layer of a big wool coat for favor of coded styles that went against the administration.
She showed up to the State of the Union wearing a white Dior pantsuit that drew comparisons to both Hillary Clinton's wardrobe and a color that symbolized women's suffrage.
But those on Twitter who celebrated Melania's moment conveniently forgot (or did not know) that she wore the hue on a night where female lawmakers had urged each other to put on black in support of #MeToo. Alas, the resistance was not destined to begin at home in those crisply-pleated trousers.
Is the fact that we all fixate on what first ladies wear unfair? Sure. Do we follow their husbands' sartorial choices with as much enthusiasm? No. (Unless it's President Obama in a tan suit, then yes.)
Melania and Grisham are right—the world should focus on more of what Melania does. But in order for us to care, she must do something first.
First lady fashion used to be an minor escape from the partisan. You may have balked at Nancy Regan's exorbitant wardrobe, but at the same time you guiltily enjoyed watching Nancy and Raisa Gorbachev compete for glitziest gown at state dinners. Even if you did not support Michelle Obama, you may have owned the same pair of chino shorts as her.
On Thanksgiving, just two days after the founders of Italian fashion label Dolce & Gabbana cancelled a runway show after making racist comments, Melania chose to wear the line. Sure, this choice was not as egregious as her Zara jacket or safari wardrobe, but the optics could have been better. That said, she did warn us: She really doesn't care.
Perhaps due to Melania's apathy, in 2018 Americans found a surrogate first lady (or at least, a new diplomatic female figure with covetable style) in Meghan Markle. At least we have her.
While there may be less interest in copying Melania's clothing choices, that does not mean she isn't making an impact in another retail sector. According to a spokesperson from eBay, red Christmas trees account for 32 percent of all fake evergreens.