On Friday night, as the co-host of her second state dinner since becoming first lady and thus a figurehead of the nation, as well as a symbol of her husband’s administration (whether she likes it or not; that’s the job), Melania Trump clothed herself in her now-signature aplomb and ambivalence. As fashion statements at major public events when you know all eyes are on you go, hers was a polite nod; a no-teeth smile, lips clamped firmly together, in sartorial form. In fact, what was most notable about it was what it did not say.
She wore a sea foam green silk J. Mendel dress with a high, round neck, long, sheer sleeves and vertical ruffles, like tiny ripples in a becalmed bay, running down the body, designed by Gilles Mendel.
Mr. Mendel is a New York fashion week designer, and Mrs. Trump has worn his clothes before, most notably during the state visit to Britain last year, when she wore an elaborately pin-tucked off-the-shoulder gown with a long yellow cape to a dinner hosted by Theresa May, then prime minister, prompting many comparisons to Belle of “Beauty and the Beast.” She also wore Mendel in May this year to a dinner in Tokyo hosted by Emperor Naruhito and his wife, Empress Masako — another evening gown with a long cape.
There were no capes or trains this time. There wasn’t even glitter and shine, as there were on the silver Chanel gown she wore as host of her first state dinner, for President Emanuel Macron of France. There was little showmanship, or flaunting of wealth, or of the trappings of pseudo-royalty that her husband often seems to favor. The dress was notably un-grand. It was not from the current season, suggesting Mrs. Trump had shopped her closet, rather than hatched a plan for the night.
It also wasn’t Australian — but she had already ticked that box earlier in the day, made that effort, wearing a light blue dress from the Australian designer Scanlan Theodore for the arrival of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny. In any case, it was American, and given she had chosen a Prada dress for the reopening of the Washington Monument this past week, and tends toward European designers as a rule, that’s no small thing.
The J. Mendel dress is no longer available, but Bergdorf’s sold it this year. Reportedly it cost about $6,000, which is pricey, but on the scale of expensive dresses, not so much (the Chanel frock, which was couture, probably cost about four times that, at least).
It was chosen because the shade went well with the rose garden, as well as the night’s décor, which was green and gold to reflect the state colors of Australia. No deeper reason.
While her office fulsomely described the reasoning behind the flowers and the meal (“The menu for the State Dinner with Australia highlights the lush, late summer season across the vast lands of America. The menu pays homage to Australia’s special blend of culinary adaptations from its various cultures, not unlike the diverse food traditions of the United States”), when it came to the dress, it simply offered the designer and a description.
“Melania Trump Makes Waves,” read the headline in USA Today. But she didn’t. Not at all. Maybe she decided to leave all that roiling of the waters to her husband.
And maybe that should be enough. Maybe the fact that the first lady shows up, does her job with decorum, and looks impeccable, is all we should ask from this particular nonelected position. Her husband wore his usual tux, jacket flapping open. Mr. Morrison buttoned his. Mrs. Morrison wore two looks from the Australian designer Carla Zampatti: a black dress on arrival and a halter-necked sequined navy column with a silk scarf to the dinner.
And yet there’s something dispiriting about the idea that at one of the grandest public occasions orchestrated by the White House, and managed largely by the East Wing — one full of pomp and circumstance and staging — the costume of the leading lady should be hailed as successful because … it’s pretty.
It’s perfectly clear that when Mrs. Trump wants to make a statement with her dress, she does it very well, whether it was her message coat or her white trouser suit at the 2018 State of the Union. As a former model, she is well versed in the use of image as silent communication. As a first lady, she knows there’s no getting around it: Everyone is looking.
We know it irritates her (she said as much, during her trip to Egypt). We know she’s tired of it. Perhaps this is her way of opting out of the game — especially since when she tries, as with her various hats, it often backfires.
But in a visual world, like it or not, we all demand more from our clothes. Is it really so strange that we’d expect the same from her?