In the end she played the part, donned the costume — and gave everyone something to chew on.
Melania Trump, who orchestrated the first state dinner of the Trump administration, a.k.a. the most fancy ceremonial evening since the inauguration, stood next to her husband and welcomed President Emmanuel Macron of France and his wife Brigitte while wearing a Chanel haute couture dress of black Chantilly lace, hand painted with silver, and embroidered with crystal and sequins.
Mrs. Trump’s dress looked kind of like sparkling sleeveless body armor and reflected a desire to pay homage to the guests of honor and what may be a new “special relationship” (identified thusly by President Trump earlier in the day while brushing what he identified as dandruff off Mr. Macron’s shoulders). Chanel is, after all, a brand that is almost synonymous with French fashion, and couture, a specific segment of the fashion industry that exists formally only in France.
It was the first time Mrs. Trump had worn Chanel at a major public occasion since becoming first lady, and one of the rare times that a first lady’s office has advertised the fact she was wearing couture.
Her predecessor, Michelle Obama, often had dresses altered to her specifications — and wore an Atelier Versace chain mail couture gown to her final state dinner with then-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — but couture is a sector unto itself, rooted in French history, unabashedly elite, and symbolic of what is known with pride as “savoir-faire,” or know how.
It is also handmade to order, exists only as one-offs, and comes complete with prices that can run into the six digits. Mrs. Trump, for example, seems to have taken what was originally a jumpsuit from the Chanel spring 2018 couture collection and had it remade as a dress.
But in a world of Trumpian excess, where the first lady once wore a coat that cost $51,500, maybe such a willingness to spend should have been expected (besides, the dress can be donated to the national archive by the designer, which defrays the cost). Mrs. Trump has always been unapologetic about the price of her clothes, and this gown had a dual purpose.
As Louise Linton, wife of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said when she and her husband made their entrance, she was excited for “everything French!”
There was something ironic about the fact she said that while wearing a silver beaded gown from Roberto Cavalli, an Italian brand designed by an Englishman, but it may not have occurred to her.
In any case, Mrs. Trump’s decision to wear Chanel was smart, given that her counterpart, Brigitte Macron, had her entire trip wardrobe — from stilettos to handbags to the ivory gown she wore to the dinner, embroidered with a lattice of gold chains across the arms and shoulders — made by Louis Vuitton.
Vuitton is, of course, another ur-French brand that happens to be owned by Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Mr. Arnault, said to be the richest man in France, and his wife, Hélène, also were guests at the dinner and he was one of the first businessmen to visit Mr. Trump at Trump Tower after his election. Given that LVMH owns Dior and Givenchy, brands favored by Mrs. Arnault, it is probably a good thing Mrs. Trump avoided them, too.
That left it to Ivanka Trump to represent American fashion, which she did in a pink tulle and swiss dot Rodarte confection. Otherwise the clothes were relatively low-key.
Jerry Hall showed up with Rupert Murdoch in bright sapphire blue; Nancy Kissinger, Karen Pence, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders in black lace. Christine Schwarzman, who will soon be standing atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art steps with her husband Stephen as one of the hosts of the Met Gala, wore white opera gloves.
It was the first lady who stood out in her glinting metallic gown, just as she had earlier in the day, with a broad-brimmed white hat that shadowed her face and matched her white suit with its military mien. And as she had on Day 1 of the French visit, in the black cape that she wore to Mount Vernon.
Though each garment came from a different designer, together they created the impression of a woman who has found the glamour in self-protection, and who is gradually tailoring the unwritten rules of her role to her own specifications. Creating her own recipe, as it were.