If there has been a single defining characteristic of Melania Trump’s public profile over the past year, it has been her relationship with sleeves. They have served as a dramatic flourish. They have been rolled up in empathy. They have been self-consciously ignored. They have reflected her personal fashion sense, the artifice inherent in the ill-defined role of first lady and the privilege of life in the White House.
Her sleeves are always in service to the picture. And there is always a picture.
The mere fact that sleeves are even considered part of her fashion profile has a lot to do with her predecessor, who more often than not shunned them. Michelle Obama made sleeveless dresses a style signature, even posing for her first official White House portrait wearing a sleeveless black Michael Kors dress. Obama’s bare arms were in keeping with contemporary fashion, but their particularly lean musculature also served as a silent disquisition on the subject of physical fitness, one of her early East Wing initiatives. In contrast, the new first lady chose a long-sleeve black Dolce & Gabbana jacket for her first portrait. Trump’s fondness for sleeves is not a pragmatic matter of covering her arms. Indeed, just because a garment has sleeves is no guarantee that those sleeves will actually be used. When she wears an overcoat or sweater, often the sleeves hang, inert, like a pair of limp, vestigial wings draped across her shoulders.
Trump’s sleeves are the mark of a fashion aesthete who is willing to cast aside practicality in favor of line, silhouette and proportion. Her sleeves tell a story of an exceptional life, one that is now lived inside the White House security bubble. Just as Obama knew she’d never have to wait for the car in the cold, Trump knows that someone else will always hold an umbrella over her head in the rain and other people will open the doors in her path.
During her first year of official appearances, Trump has used fashion as costuming. Her clothes function as part of the day’s mise-en-scene. If her public performance is communicating empathy for hurricane victims, she pulls her hair into a ponytail, tops it with a baseball cap and rolls up her sleeves. When leading children through the White House Kitchen Garden, she wears a red plaid shirt with matching gardening gloves. When representing the United States on an official visit to China, her dress recalls a traditional cheongsam. Her attire reflects her day’s obligations, but it rarely carries the banner of made-in-America patriotism or a nod to a host country’s creative industry. Trump may engage in soft diplomacy — hugging children, touring landmarks, smiling (sometimes) — but it is not fashion-specific.
Yes, she wears clothes by American brands: Diane von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein. Ralph Lauren created her inaugural suit. She has worn Michael Kors on multiple occasions. And she regularly wears the work of Hervé Pierre. The French-born Pierre created her inaugural gown only a few months after becoming a U.S. citizen and continues to serve as both a stylist and personal couturier. But her aesthetic heart arguably belongs to Europe. While in Beijing, she wore a Chinese-inspired gown to an official dinner. But it had been designed by Italy’s Gucci. When she hosted the Chinese president and his wife at Mar-a-Lago, she chose a red dress from Valentino, which has roots in Milan.
For multiple events in the nation’s capital — events rooted in sentimentality and tradition that would seem to beg for an “America first” gesture — she has not showcased the work of an American designer. She wore a lumberjack plaid shirt to dig in the White House garden; but that shirt appeared to be from the French brand Balmain. When she donated her inaugural gown to the first ladies exhibition at the National Museum of American History, she wore the Italian label Dolce & Gabbana. She was draped in a floral brocade coat for the Thanksgiving turkey pardoning, but it was by the London-based Stella McCartney. (The brand’s namesake is an animal rights advocate, so perhaps the selection was in honor of the turkey.) For the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, Trump chose a bright red, belted Chanel overcoat. To unveil the White House Christmas decorations, she selected an ivory-colored dress by the much-lauded French brand Christian Dior.
“As with all that she does, Mrs. Trump stays true to herself and her style. When it comes to her personal fashion, she chooses what she likes and what is appropriate for the occasion. She does not worry about her critics or paying tribute to specific designers,” wrote her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham in an email. Trump is dressing for the story that she wants to tell, not necessarily the story that Americans might like or even need to hear.
Trump’s favored European brands are not new or up-and-coming. They are brands deeply rooted in their country’s traditions, history and psyche. Dior and Chanel are embedded in the French national identity. Dolce & Gabbana celebrates the cultural traditions of southern Italy. Delpozo, another Trump favorite, is a decades-old Spanish label. They are their country’s fancy iterations of Ford pickups, Yankees baseball caps and Levi’s. These brands vehemently and ostentatiously contradict the administration’s rallying cry to buy American-made products, support American manufacturing and celebrate America.
But the clothes look good in the pictures, mostly. Ultimately, the picture is the point.
Trump collaborates with Pierre to build a state wardrobe for home and abroad. For Pierre, the goal is to ensure that the first lady is well-attired for each public appearance — that she is appropriate. He is not a stylist focused on the storytelling capacity of clothes. He is a technician with an eye for silhouette and proportion. The lines of Trump’s clothes are notable. She leans heavily on dresses with dramatic and voluminous sleeves: balloon, bell, kimono, even veering toward leg-of-mutton. The clothes make for an eye-catching entrance.
But often, when she’s standing behind a lectern or cropped into the tight frame of a television monitor, the line of her dress becomes distorted. At the United Nations, her hot pink Delpozo coatdress made for a striking picture when she entered the room. During her brief remarks, however, the dress turned into a fuchsia blob. An eggplant-colored Delpozo coat, with its off-center gold zipper and oversized sleeves, made a fine runway statement. On the tarmac in South Korea, its proportions became exaggerated and inelegant. There was no discernible cultural message or nuanced narrative to consider, only the photo. And the photo was a dud.
Trump likes to wear her overcoat draped over her shoulders. It’s a fashion tic — a styling flourish that allows for layering while ensuring that each layer is visible. Tossing a coat around one’s shoulders adds an air of nonchalance to an ensemble, keeping it from being too precious — or at least suggesting that the ensemble is not precious to the wearer. (This $51,500 floral Dolce & Gabbana coat? Just something I threw on.)
It’s also an impractical style and essentially renders one’s arms useless. But, of course, that assumes that one will need to do anything remotely physical. No first lady has to. Not really. Not in public. Trump does not pretend that the reality is otherwise.
Trump dresses for the event — not to expound upon the meaning of the event. Her verbal communication with the public has been limited; aesthetically, she offers only snippets of subtext, context or nuance. For the Easter Egg Roll, she wore an Easter egg-pink dress. For the Fourth of July, she wore a flag blue-and-white sundress. When greeting law enforcement and military personnel, she dressed in an olive-drab puffer coat.
In her public appearances, Trump’s chosen designer may be American-born, immigrant or foreigner. The label could be that of a legacy brand or a fairly established one. Her choices are not likely to be mass-market. America First is not part of her fashion philosophy.
She dresses to please herself and to please the eye. In the moment and for the history books.