Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Nothing else Melania Trump wears will ever matter again

July 13, 2018 at 6:00 AM

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On their first night in Britain, July 12, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump boarded a helicopter bound for a black-tie gala at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. (The Washington Post)

Once again, Melania Trump has stepped onto the international stage in the traditional role of first lady: an emissary of the American people, a symbol of our collective humanity — and a fashion mannequin of soft diplomacy. The stakes, as always, are high. But her credibility as a moderating force, a gracious presence swathed in silk and lace, has been significantly undermined by her own hand. All it took was a $39 olive-drab jacket.

The first lady began her country-hopping sojourn Tuesday, when she stepped off Air Force One in Brussels wearing a camel-colored Burberry trench coat buttoned snugly to the neck. There was no evident Belgian subtext to this particular choice, but it still suggested an intent. The classic trench coat was basically invented by the British. And Burberry is a quintessentially British brand, though with a new designer, Riccardo Tisci, who is Italian. Thus, Mrs. Trump’s fashion choice could be construed as an olive branch of sorts to Great Britain, the ally with whom the United States has an often-mentioned special relationship that has been looking less special these days.

Melania Trump on the tarmac after arriving in Brussels for the NATO summit. Her classic trench coat is by Burberry. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters/)

On Wednesday afternoon at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in the Brussels suburb of Waterloo, Mrs. Trump participated in a program for NATO spouses that included a fashion show and chocolate tasting. She listened appreciatively at a recital of Tchaikovsky. For the occasion, she selected a navy sleeveless dress with a flared skirt by Calvin Klein 205W39NYC. It was an astute choice — an iconic American brand under the creative leadership of Belgian designer Raf Simons. Since taking the helm in 2017, Simons has mounted runway shows that paint an elegiacal portrait of the American Dream through the eyes of an immigrant. His version is not without hope or optimism, but it’s not the sunny vision it once might have been. In Simons’s version, the clouds have rolled in over the amber waves of grain. So the first lady’s dress potentially offered quite a bit of cultural subtext.

Melania Trump, left center, wearing a Calvin Klein dress at the NATO spouses event with Amelie Derbaudrenghien of Belgium, left, and Brigitte Macron of France and Gauthier Destenay of Luxembourg at right. (Nicholas Lambert/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/)

For Wednesday evening, Mrs. Trump opted for a white, tea-length cocktail dress by the Lebanese designer Elie Saab. The silhouette was reserved, but the fabric was rather sheer. It balanced glamour with decorum. It did not speak of Belgium or NATO, but it could well serve as a reminder of the global nature of fashion, creativity and style.

Melania Trump in a sheer, lace tulle dress by Elie Saab at the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, Belgium. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/)
Melania Trump in a taupe sheath by London-based designer Roland Mouret as she arrives in London. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Mrs. Trump continued in this manner throughout her international excursion. For her Thursday arrival in London, she opted for a form-fitting sheath by the London-based designer Roland Mouret, a brand that has been in the wardrobe rotation of the Duchess of Sussex, nee Meghan Markle. For dinner later that evening with Prime Minister Theresa May, she wore a yellow silk chiffon gown by the New York-based designer Gilles Mendel. He helms J. Mendel, which was founded in the 1870s in St. Petersburg as a furrier catering to Russian aristocracy. The house relocated to Paris after the 1917 revolution. Gilles took over the family business in 1981 and has since been inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Related: [For Melania Trump, 2017 was the year of the sleeve]

So the first lady’s wardrobe is well positioned to tell a story about the global nature of fashion, its ability to speak to cultural and social shifts, the heft of its emotional resonance. It has the potential to speak volumes about empathy and cross-border friendship.

But does it? Can it ever?

Can there be fashion diplomacy after detonating the nuclear option? After the crude fashion equivalent of throwing up the middle finger? That, after all, is what Mrs. Trump did in June when she flew off on a humanitarian mission to visit detained migrant children wearing a fast-fashion jacket inscribed with “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” Few garments have caused as much of a media storm as that Zara jacket with its dismissive white graffiti scrawl. In response to the brouhaha, her spokesperson advised, “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message.” Thus instructed, there was no reason to believe that there was any sly misdirection, no bitter irony, no mistaking the intent. Take the general message at its word.

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First lady Melania Trump wore a jacket that caused a stir on social media as she boarded a plane to Texas on June 21 for a border visit. (The Washington Post)

The message was clear, after all. Recoil. Agree. Shrug. She does not care. About what, precisely?

About opinions. About expectations. About anything. “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?”

Mrs. Trump has made it plain. Her publicly expressed lack of concern wasn’t focused on some specific aspect of her role — perhaps one with which the public could even empathize or at least understand. Her disaffection was writ large as she walked across the tarmac in clear view of photographers. She didn’t aim her disdain with the precision of a sniper. She sprayed everything within range with scorn.

First lady Melania Trump, center left, is greeted by Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on the eve of the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War I.
President Trump and the first lady welcome trick-or-treaters to the White House for Halloween festivities.
The president and first lady arrive in the East Room of the White House to speak on a year of historic progress and action combating the opioid crisis.
The first lady, right, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos greet students from Digital Pioneers Academy before screening the film “Wonder” with them in the White House movie theater.
The first lady visits the Giza Pyramids during the final stop of her trip through four African countries.
The first lady walks with children during a visit to the Nest Orphanage in Limuru, Kenya.
Melania Trump attends a meeting with President Trump and the Polish president in the Oval Office.
The Trumps hold hands as they walk away from the “Flight Path Overlook” at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa.
Trump greets Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta, outside the Oval Office.
The first lady smiles as she visits the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
The first lady attends the federal partners in bullying prevention summit at Health and Human Services in Rockville, Md.
The Trumps and their son Barron walk to Air Force One before departing from Morristown, N.J. for Washington.
The first lady blows bubbles with 18-month-old patient Elliegh Rasmussen during a visit to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville.
The first lady looks on as President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki.
The Trumps arrive at Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland.
Trump and Philip May, the husband of British Prime Minister Theresa May, bowl with children during a visit to British military veterans at a hospital in London.
The first lady and the president stand with Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to Windsor Castle.
The first lady arrives at Prestwick Airport, south of Glasgow, Scotland.
The Trumps are greeted after disembarking from Air Force One at London Stansted Airport in Britain.
The Trumps pose with British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband, Philip, during a ceremonial welcome at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock.
The first lady arrives with other first ladies for a group photo of NATO heads of state and government at Park Cinquantenaire in Brussels.
Amelie Derbaudrenghien, the partner of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, second left, speaks with the first lady, center, and French first lady Brigitte Macron, second right, during a group photo at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Waterloo, Belgium, during a spouses program on the sidelines of the NATO summit.
The first lady watches as her husband speaks with the news media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House en route to Europe.
Trump arrives in the East Room of the White House for the president’s announcement of his Supreme Court nominee.
The president and first lady cross the South Lawn upon arrival at the White House from Bedminster, N.J.
The president and first lady walk arrive to greet guests during a picnic for military families on the South Lawn of the White House for the Fourth of July celebration.
The Trumps welcome King Abdullah of Jordan and Queen Rania to the White House.
The first lady arrives at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after visiting a shelter for migrant children in McAllen, Tex. The words on her jacket — “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” — created an uproar online.
The Trumps greet Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia upon their arrival at the White House.
The first lady arrives to speak about her new Be Best program and initiatives during an event in the Rose Garden.
The Trumps walk out to the North Portico to greet French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, as the Trumps host a state dinner at the White House.
The first lady is shown during an arrival ceremony for the French president and his wife at the White House.
Trump arrives at the Henry Flagler museum in Palm Beach, Fla., for a visit with Akie Abe, wife of the Japanese prime minister.
The Trumps Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, stop to talk to the media as they walk to dinner at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.
Trump presents an International Women of Courage Award to L’Malouma Said, of Mauritania, at the State Department.
Trump arrives for a roundtable discussion on cybersafety and technology with industry experts in the State Dining Room of the White House.
The president and the first lady walk to Marine One to depart for a trip to New Hampshire.
The Trumps welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, at the White House.
President Trump, the first lady and their son, Barron, leave Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
The Trumps walk with Igor Nichiporenko during a visit to Broward Health North hospital in Pompano Beach, Fla., where victims of the school shooting in nearby Parkland were treated.
The first lady helps Annie Ribas, 9, left, and Katherine Faughn, 6, decorate cookies during her visit to the Children's Inn at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
The Trumps walk from the Oval Office to the Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump receives applause as she enters the House chamber before the State of the Union speech.
The Trumps arrive for a New Year’s Eve gala at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
Trump high-fives the daughter of a military family while sorting toys during a Toys for Tots event at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington.
Trump arrives with patient Damian Contreras and Santa Claus before a reading of “The Polar Express” at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. The tradition of first ladies visiting the medical center dates back over 60 years.
The Trumps wave to spectators after lighting the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse.
The Trumps visit members of the U.S. Coast Guard at Station Lake Worth Inlet in Riviera Beach, Fla.
Trump listens as the president speaks during the Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House.
The first lady and Barron arrive for the presentation of the White House Christmas tree at the North Portico.
Trump visits the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China in Beijing.
Trump and Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, arrive at a state dinner in honor of President Trump at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The Trumps arrive at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.
Trump and Japan’s first lady, Akie Abe, visit Kyobashi Tsukiji Elementary School in Tokyo.
The Trumps arrive for an official dinner, thrown in their honor by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo.
Trump spends time with Akie Abe, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district.
The Trumps emerge from their limousine and are greeted by the news media before departing from Hawaii for a 10-day trip to Asia.
The president and first lady throw flower petals while visiting the USS Arizona Memorial.
Trump and designer Herve Pierre stand with the gown the first lady wore to the inaugural balls as she donates it to the First Ladies' Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.
The first lady listens as Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak in the Oval Office.
Trump listens during a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House.
The first lady stands alongside the president as he speaks to the media before departing the White House for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
The first lady meets with Prince Harry in Toronto.
The first lady works in the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn with children from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.
The first lady addresses other spouses of world leaders on the issue of vulnerable children around the world at a United Nations luncheon in New York.
Trump, center, listens as the president speaks to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
The first lady greets children during a visit to the Joint Base Andrews youth center in Maryland.
The Trumps at the White House Historical Association reception and dinner in the State Dining Room.
The Trumps walk from the White House to the South Lawn to board Marine One before heading to Texas to view the government’s response to flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
The Trumps step off Air Force One after arriving in Corpus Christi, Tex.
The Trumps watch the traditional military parade as part of the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris.
Trump and Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, attend a welcoming ceremony at the Invalides in Paris. Read: U.S., French first ladies visit Paris, celebrate French style
Trump is received by Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz during the Group of 20 summit at the town hall in Hamburg.
The Trumps attend a concert at the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg.
The Trumps arrive at Hamburg Airport for the G-20 summit.
The first lady walks from the White House to Marine One as she and the president prepare to travel to Poland and Germany.
The Trumps, with their son, Barron, walk along the South Lawn as they leave the White House for Bedminster, N.J.
The Trumps welcome South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jeong-Suk, to the White House.
The first lady attends a meeting in the Oval Office with President Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Trump and the first lady of Panama, Lorena Castillo Garcia de Varela, stand outside the White House.
The Trumps and their son, Barron, walk from the White House to board Marine One en route to Camp David in Maryland.
The first lady applauds as the president speaks at the Ford's Theatre Gala in Washington.
Trump arrives at Chierici Palace in Catania, Italy, wearing a Dolce & Gabbana floral coat with multicolored silk flowers. Read: About Melania Trump and that $51,500 jacket she wore in Italy …
The first lady visits the Queen Fabiola children's hospital during the NATO summit in Brussels.
The first lady arrives with the president at the Melsbroek Air Base in Brussels for the NATO summit.
Pope Francis meets with the Trumps at the Vatican. The first lady wore a long-sleeved Dolce & Gabbana black dress and a black veil, following a tradition of many first ladies before her to wear black when meeting the pope. Read: Why Melania Trump wore a head covering in Rome but not in Saudi Arabia
The first lady, in a Stella McCartney jumpsuit, watches as the president receives a medal from Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz during a welcome ceremony at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh. Read: On her first official trip, Melania Trump is dressed for control and containment
King Salman, right, walks with the president and first lady during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace in Riyadh. Read: On her first official trip, Melania Trump is dressed for control and containment
President Trump and the first lady, wearing a leather Herve Pierre skirt, board Marine One to begin their first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily. Read: On her first official trip, Melania Trump is dressed for control and containment
The Trumps stand with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, upon their arrival at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The first lady and Akie Abe, right, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, listen to park administrator Bonnie White Lemay as they tour Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Fla.
The Trumps and the Abes step off Air Force One upon arriving in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The first lady greets children during the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House.
The first lady takes her seat before a news conference in the East Room of the White House.
Trump, Queen Rania of Jordan, right, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, center, arrive for their visit to the Excel Academy Public Charter school in Washington.
The Trumps arrive at the Palm Beach International airport for a visit to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
Trump, wearing a Jackie Kennedy-esque powder-blue Ralph Lauren cashmere dress and cropped jacket, shakes hands with outgoing first lady Michelle Obama during the inauguration at the Capitol in Washington. Read: Beyond fashion: How Melania Trump is modeling herself after Jackie Kennedy
Photo Gallery: The former model?s daytime fashion choices often show a businesslike polish.

How does a de facto diplomat recover from such rhetorical carnage?

Related: [There was no pretense about Melania Trump’s heels. But sometimes, a little pretense helps.]

It is a challenge to believe she was interested in the musical prowess of a couple of students at a Belgian music school. Or concerned about strained relationships between longtime allies. Or delighting in the creativity and business acumen of American companies. Or attentive to the protocol of a spouses’ dinner. Or mindful of the historical resonance of a meeting with Prime Minister May. Is she even pleased to be there at all?

For her public appearances in Belgium and England, she filled her wardrobe with designers and brands that speak to the moment in ways that are both respectful and thoughtful. Without saying a word, she has offered a visual tale of international cooperation and collaboration. The question is not whether she is engaging in diplomatic outreach. Of course she is. That is what first ladies do. It is their silent strength.

But if Mrs. Trump doesn’t really care, why should anyone else?

First lady Melania Trump’s public wardrobe was full of symbolism. But if she doesn’t really care, why should you? (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

More from Robin Givhan:

THE FASHION OF POLITICS: Hillary’s pantsuits, Trump’s tailoring, Palin’s sparkles. Why what they wear matters

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and The Washington Post's fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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