It costs a lot of money to look this provocative.
Melania Trump grabbed headlines this week for visiting Nairobi National Park in Kenya while wearing a striking pith helmet, a topper with colonial connotations. This is hardly the first time the first lady has made sartorial waves with an offbeat choice of outfit, and the results were predictable. A thousand thinkpieces bloomed, and in response, Trump lamented that “I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.” It’s a canny strategy by the first lady to set up her critics as shallow at best and anti-feminist at worst. But if there’s one thing Trump knows, it’s clothes. And if she wants more substantive coverage, she could do more of substance, rather than relying on odd sartorial choices to bait first lady-watchers into looking like the frivolous ones.
Some of the kerfuffles over Trump’s clothes have been overblown. I’m definitely not nimble enough to walk across a tarmac in stiletto heels even in dry conditions, but if that’s what the first lady is comfortable wearing to board a plane on the way to Hurricane Harvey-stricken Texas, all I can do is admire her ankle strength.
And much of the time, Trump dresses in a way that’s memorable for the right reasons. Her belted coats, patterned day dresses and penchant for bright pops of color, especially from the Spanish clothing company Delpozo give her a distinct, often crisp look. If her experiments in suiting are less successful, that’s generally a matter of tailoring, not intention; despite the lift from those heels, her pantsuits could often use a slightly more precise hem. Her experiments with sleeves show that a little bit of innovation with cut can make an outfit look genuinely fresh.
But where Trump often ends up in the headlines — to her stated frustration and to the consternation of her critics — is in a tendency towards the theatrical. First lady is a part, of course, and one Trump often dresses for successfully. The occasions on which she’d attracted condemnation are ones in which she appears to be not merely expanding what it’s possible to do with that role, but dressing for another part entirely.
Take the pith helmet Trump wore. It’s entirely reasonable to want to keep the sun off of your face and neck on a hot day when you’re going to spend a long time outside. Some of the people who accompanied her and met with her on the visit, including keepers at the David Sheldrick Elephant & Rhino Orphanage wore brimmed hats of various designs. But the specific brimmed hat Trump chose for the trip isn’t a neutral, ahistorical headcovering. It’s a chapeau with a highly specific connotation. Even if Trump didn’t intend to wear an outfit that glorified England’s messy colonial history, she looked as if she’d dressed for a leading role in a period piece, rather than to project contemporary elegance.
In general, Trump’s less-successful outfits look like they were grabbed from a rolling rack on the set of a mediocre fashion editorial or catalog shoot. The Gucci cheongsam with mink cuffs she wore to a state dinner in Beijing; the Ralph Lauren gingham dress she wore on July 4 of this year that tilted over into picnic-blanket territory; and most infamously, a Zara jacket emblazoned with the slogan “I really don’t care. Do U?” all have in common a sense that Trump doesn’t trust her audience to pick up on a more subtle message.
The result is often that she communicates something other than what a more traditional first lady might intend. In China, the cheongsam suggested a familiarity with a cliche representation of the country rather than with contemporary Chinese design. The Ralph Lauren dress, like a red, white and blue baseball jacket she wore to the 2018 Super Bowl involved American symbolism at its most absolute basic. And the Zara jacket made Trump look as if she’d been dressed up as a generic protester, without much thought to message, and certainly without the wit that Vice showed in 2011 when the magazine staged an “American Psycho”-themed fashion shoot at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York.
But if these outfits fail at the most obvious and traditional level of messaging, they succeed on another. Every time the first lady dons another one of her provocations, she sets off a round of commentary, which in turn gives her an opportunity to denounce the coverage of her clothes relative to the attention paid to her ideas and good works.
Both partners in this tango should drop the pretense. If Melania Trump wants to be covered as a serious person, there is a more direct route to that sort of notice than using her clothes to bait elaborate traps for the press and then demand a different sort of coverage once one of those traps snaps shut: simply doing the work. And those of us watching her should stop being baffled when Trump seems to put a well-shod foot wrong. She knows exactly what she’s doing.