People were baffled by the first lady's choice to wear high heels to visit the devastation in Texas. The Post's fashion critic Robin Givhan discusses what this fashion choice meant. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Melania Trump is the kind of woman who travels to a flood-ravaged state in a pair of black snakeskin stilettos. Heels this high are not practical. But Trump is not the kind of woman who has to be practical. Heels this high are not comfortable. Comfort is not the point. Neither hers nor yours.

Trump is the kind of woman who knows that when she walks from the White House to Marine One there will be photographers, and so she will dress accordingly. On this soggy Tuesday morning, she wore her stilettos with a pair of cropped black trousers and an Army-green bomber jacket. Her hair was nicely blown out, and she was wearing a pair of sunglasses though it was overcast and drizzly at the time. As she walked to the chopper, she glanced toward a camera, and the photographer captured her with one hand in her pocket, her weight shifted slightly to one leg. She looked great.

Trump’s fashionable ensemble was defined by its contradictions. She was wearing a working man’s jacket but it was juxtaposed with sexy limousine shoes. The trousers and the top were basic black — utilitarian. The oversize aviator sunglasses were Hollywood. It’s an image that would have been at home in any fashion magazine, which is so often the case with the first lady. She knows fashion. She knows her angles.

It was also an image that suggested that Trump is the kind of woman who refuses to pretend that her feet will, at any point, ever be immersed in cold, muddy, bacteria-infested Texas water. She is the kind of woman who may listen empathetically to your pain, but she knows that you know that she is not going to experience it. So why pretend?

Well, sometimes pretense is everything. It’s the reason for the first lady to go to Texas at all: to symbolize care and concern and camaraderie. To remind people that the government isn’t merely doing its job, that the government is engaged with each and every individual. Washington hears its citizens. That’s what the optics are all about. Sitting around a conference table and talking into a speaker phone are not good optics. A politician has to get on the ground in work boots and a windbreaker. Rolled-up sleeves. Galoshes. Baseball caps.


First Lady Melania Trump walks on stilettos to board Air Force One en route to Texas to view the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Appearance is even more relevant with this first lady. She rarely speaks in public and has yet to make clear precisely what she might do with her time in the White House aside from looking after her young son. And so every time she comes into public view, standing or walking silently alongside her husband, the image becomes a silent expression of intent and self-awareness. These pictures are her legacy.

And for her trip to Texas, the first lady offered up a fashion moment instead of an expression of empathy.

Observers were baffled by her shoes in particular. Those shoes. Those shoes. Good Lord, those shoes. She is fond of Manolos and Louboutins. But it’s not the brand or the cost: It’s the heels. She defies gravity in them. She floats above it all. They aren’t power heels; they’re sexy heels. Heading off to Texas, she looked dressed to view a natural disaster from a distance, from on high, not up close. Her ensemble implied that people’s personal stories would be ferried to her after they had been vetted and tidied up. There was no suggestion that Trump would be flat-footed in the muck, hearing their truth in messy, tearful open-ended confusion.

By the time Trump landed in Texas she had changed. She was still wearing black trousers, but they were paired with a white shirt and sneakers. She still had her sunglasses, but her hair was pulled into a ponytail. She also was wearing a black baseball cap that said “FLOTUS” in white letters. The cap was like a hedge against her blending into the crowd. A defense against any possibility that for just a split second she might seem regular. She is not like you, or you, or you, it says. She is the first lady.


First lady Melania Trump, after making an en route costume change, steps off Air Force One in Corpus Christi, Tex. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Melania Trump wears a FLOTUS baseball cap. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Melania Trump’s sneakers. (Evan Vucci/AP)

(On Tuesday evening, the first lady issued a statement about her trip: “I want to be able to offer my help and support in the most productive way possible, not through just words, but also action. What I found to be the most profound during the visit was not only the strength and resilience of the people of Texas, but the compassion and sense of community that has taken over the State.”)

Still, her Corpus Christi ensemble was more akin to what one might have expected her to wear for the Hurricane Harvey briefing. Its simplicity and practicality were in sync with the president’s khakis and boots. It was optically optimal. But the chance to tell an uninterrupted narrative of care and concern had already been missed. This was just a costume change for another fashion moment.

Read more from Robin Givhan:

The Fashion of Politics: How clothing choices help sell a political message.