It is not easy sliding into the role of first lady — or for the sake of this presidential election cycle, first spouse. The evolution from independent person to "better half," "secret weapon" or "incredibly accomplished genius who puts her family and children first unlike her wildly ambitious husband," can be awkward and painful. And Melania Trump, a former model — a professional pretty person — has been battling for her footing in this rocky wilderness where the currency of beauty is devalued and thus so is she.
To be clear, even in politics, in government, in Washington, attractive people have an advantage. There is an expectation that the first lady is always poised and polished. And on state occasions, she must elevate her style to a more glamorous, faultless level. The occupants of the East Wing, whether Jackie Kennedy or Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush or Michelle Obama, have all labored under that stress and even thrived. They all made use of this country's top designers to craft a public image that reflected the administration to which they were tethered, the tenor of the times during which they served and their personal sense of self. They used clothes as a way of defining themselves on the international stage. We all do something akin to this — in a more modest way — every day, and so there was a point of empathy in the struggle.
But for first ladies of the modern era, their looks have not been their profession. They did not craft a career based on the sparkle in their eyes, the lushness of their hair or the legginess of their legs. There was always something else that served as the top line on their resume. But Trump was a model — not briefly, not part-time, not at the local mall. Her career took her from Slovenia to Milan and Paris and ultimately to New York where she met the man who hopes to be president: Donald. This makes her a rare and exotic creature, someone whose livelihood was based on genetics, luck and tenacity. She is an aberration. In the fashion industry, that's fine; elsewhere, it's regarded as suspect.
In the broader culture, Trump tends to generate an eye-roll. Where is the tale of struggle, of success and money having been earned? Modeling is not easy — but one is, in fact, born to it.
An exception: In Trump-land, nothing is ever as it always has been. GQ magazine, which published a recent interview with Trump, included an archival portrait of her from 2011 sitting behind a bowl of jewelry, twirling a necklace around her fork like a strand of spaghetti — as if she actually might eat carbs. The image melds Marie Antoinette with "Dynasty" with a sprinkling of "Real Housewives." And if all of those cliches singularly might have caused a twinge of nausea, together — in this moment in time, among her husband's fans — the result is an image that could be an official portrait of the First Hottie inside a Donald J. Trump White House.
But out there among the general electorate, someone having been a model is hardly considered a plus for this role. The job conjures for many all the tropes of narcissism, vapidness, superficiality. But a model has at least one advantage. In their professional lives, models rarely communicate verbally; they speak via body language — the extension of an arm, a glance, the twist of a torso. They are accustomed to being visually dissected. And because of this, it seems that Trump has a certain confidence on stage. When she stands or sits next to her man as he booms and gesticulates, rarely does an expression of discomfort wash across her face. Yes, she knows you are looking. Of course you are.
As a model, the foundation of her relationship to clothes is different from that of other women. On a day to day basis, clothes were not a reflection of her personality. They were a costume into which she breathed life. An accomplished model is a chameleon who becomes what the frocks need her to be, which means that she can transform into an aloof, aristocratic swan if the evening gown requires it, or she can be a bohemian waif if the paisley dress calls for that. She is a hanger, an interpreter, a muse. But always, always, the clothes come first. She is the clothes.
Watching Trump figure out what it means to embody the look of a first lady means bearing witness to a steady stream of fitted sheath dresses and simple cloth coats with a matching belt and an occasional glorious display of legs. The looks are studiously low-key and uninteresting, not because they are unattractive clothes but because the woman wearing them — the model — has not enlivened them with her individual personality. What is her personality? The woman who has counseled her husband — the candidate — to be more presidential, seems self-consciously aiming to be very "first lady." Smiling. Attentive. Smiling. But that's about it.
The rule of thumb in political attire is that it must not be a distraction from the speech, the issue or the candidate. The role of a model, on the other hand, is to distract. She is hired because she draws the eye, captures your attention and makes you look — at what she is wearing. And so sometimes, Trump has been more model than maybe-first lady. That tension was evident when she wore a fitted cream-colored dress with strategically placed slits. It revealed nothing but hinted at a lot, which made you not just look, but stare. She was standing alongside Ivanka Trump, the daughter, whose short-sleeved red sheath was by contrast discreet, and whose expression exuded polite interest while Melania appeared to be witnessing the rapture.
There is no previously defined notion of first lady that Trump can channel. After all, for the spouses there are no debates, no foreign policy speeches. The essence of a first lady is, in fact, some aspect of the woman herself. She seems to chip off some piece of her resume — an interest in literacy, the arts, children's welfare, fighting obesity — and transforms that into her East Wing identity. If a resume essentially says, "model" and little more, what then? It becomes a challenge to be seen as more than a sample size in a dress.