Melania Trump this week is in the midst of that awkward activity of being first lady. Accompanying her husband on his debut foreign trip, her role is mostly to be seen and not heard — at least not until the final leg of the journey when she is scheduled to deliver remarks to U.S. military personnel and families in Italy. Until then she moves silently, striding across tarmacs, proceeding through receiving lines, posing for photographs and gazing intently at whatever landmark, person or happening is in her line of vision.
All of this is done for the benefit of cameras. And quite often, her expression is not one of delight. This is atypical for U.S. first ladies, who tend to offer up a sort of facial diplomacy that suggests pleasure, happiness or at least mild interest in the activities at hand. To be fair, Trump’s non-smiling expression may very well indicate little more than she is jet-lagged or that she simply has a neutral opinion about the goings-on around her. Or maybe she just tends to be reserved in showing her emotions. Still, it is striking that she does not seem compelled to emote for the photographers, which would essentially mean cementing a smile on her face whenever she is in public, because in public there are always cameras.
Demanding that women smile is akin to suggesting that women are not entitled to be in charge of their own emotional life. But for women who live the greater part of their lives in the public eye, smiling is a kind of code for being not only engaged, but also being engaging. For a woman who was once a model, who ostensibly is practiced in the art of nonverbal communication, the willingness to forgo a grin seems less like an accident and more like the tiniest declaration of personal control and rebellion. She is here for you, but she is not going to perform for you.
Saudi Arabia was the first stop on this trip abroad, and Melania Trump acknowledged the country’s traditions of conservative dress by choosing long sleeves, high necklines and nothing that revealed much skin. She did not, however, cover her head. Doing so is not necessary for visiting Western dignitaries. Indeed, Michelle Obama did not wear a head covering when she toured Saudi Arabi as first lady. However, in 2007, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi covered her head when she visited a mosque in Damascus. A lady has the right to choose.
Trump has favored wide belts, close-fitting skirts and jackets with ’80s-style prominent shoulders. In particular, the white skirt suit, by Michael Kors Collection, that she wore in Israel, which was her second stop, exemplifies what is quickly becoming her signature style. There is a businesslike polish to her daytime aesthetic, one defined by angles and sharp lines. When she departed the White House on Friday afternoon, a day when the temperature ticked up past 90 degrees, Trump wore a high-waisted, pumpkin-colored leather skirt by designer Herve Pierre and a long-sleeve ivory sweater. She is not one to let the weather derail a fashion decision.
While in Saudi Arabia, she wore an olive-drab safari dress, with flap pockets and epaulettes, and a wide brown leather belt. It was the sort of belt that does not just cinch a dress, it highlights a narrow waist. It brags about it.
Trump’s daytime ensembles do not exude ease or fluidity. They are strict and confining. They paint a picture of a woman who is self-contained, controlled and reserved. Her clothes are in keeping with the family style: Her husband rarely wears anything but a suit, and their 11-year-old son, according to his mother, prefers jackets and ties to T-shirts and jeans.
Her clothes speak to fashion’s usefulness as protective armor and, perhaps, a negotiating tactic. Trump has worn American designers on this trip, although those designers have hardly been trumpeting that fact on their social media. Trump has also worn European brands. In fact, when she stepped off Air Force One in Riyadh, she was wearing a long-sleeve black jumpsuit by Stella McCartney, which she’d paired with a wide, metallic gold belt and a thick, gold link necklace. The black jumpsuit called to mind an abaya.
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) May 21, 2017
To a Western eye, the choice seemed to pay homage to the aspects of Saudi society that confine women instead of emphasizing the broader world that is available to them. In the first lady’s own social media, she made note of the “great strides being made towards the empowerment of women” in Saudi Arabia, which seems like quite a stretch in a country where women cannot drive, guardianship laws are enforced and clothing serves as a form of patriarchal control. She, like the president, may not have come to Saudi Arabia to judge or to tell others how to live, but whitewashing social inequality in a tweet is another matter entirely. In that context, her black jumpsuit became a combination of passive approval and transactional acceptance of clothing as a form of imprisonment.
Trump’s evening wear so far is streamlined and minimalist. When she walked with the president to the Murabba Palace for a reception and dinner, she wore a full-length fuchsia gown with a cape. The dress was elegant and glamorous. In one striking photograph, she is surrounded almost entirely by men, most of them in traditional attire or in military uniforms. The president is in a dark business suit and a blue and white striped tie that, as usual, hangs well below his belt. His jacket is unbuttoned.
The first lady is dressed for a formal dinner. The president is dressed for a business meeting. Their hands appear to be touching. But they are not clasped. They are looking in opposite directions.
She is the bedazzled bird in this photograph. The one with the brightly-colored plumage. The eye is automatically drawn to her. But by the set of her mouth and the distant look in her eyes, she does not invite your gaze to linger. You are not welcome to lean in closer. She demands that you look away.