“Vestis facit virum,” wrote Catholic priest and social critic Erasmus in Latin during the Middle Ages, arguing that “clothes make the man.” The adage rings even truer in the era of social media influencers and constant streaming, during which highly calibrated and staged photos make the rounds in the blink of an eye. Images depicting folks in carefully curated outfits and scenarios have an immediate and lasting impact, directly imbuing the photographed clothes with deep meaning.
Few current-day women’s sartorial choices have been dissected more than those of first lady Melania Trump, whose politics we can only assume given her marriage to President Donald Trump, but haven’t heard her ever really discuss. So opaque is Melania Trump as a person and so thirsty for information is the public that the first lady’s clothes have represented her assumed political stance, in many cases. But what is she saying? And, perhaps most important, is she even saying anything at all with her clothing?
“I think she stands for herself and nothing more than that,” New York University professor and media historian Moya Luckett told HuffPost. “I think she stands for an upwardly mobile immigrant from Eastern Europe who has become incredibly powerful but, with that, has not become as visible as she might like.”
“Is it sillier to acknowledge the strategy behind appearance, or to pretend such influences don’t exist?” wrote fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times Vanessa Friedman back in 2017, when discussing Melania’s style. The question, rhetorically presented to a public both constantly critiquing Melania Trump’s outfits and Friedman’s own critiques of them, is followed by the writer’s explanation of the first lady’s unique position. “In the current White House, it is Melania whose clothes may be the most telling,” Friedman wrote. “Not because she is a woman, but because since the election she has rarely spoken, retreating to her penthouse in New York.”
“I think first ladies are kind of like the royal family in that they often don’t speak,” Luckett said. “Instead, their clothes make the statement for them, but those statements don’t just come from, ‘I happen to like this dress’ but branding, marketing, stylists and communications experts [are involved].”
For Melania, that team is currently headed by freelance designer and consultant Hervé Pierre, who works as her de facto stylist. In 2017, he designed the first lady’s gown for the inaugural balls — a white off-shoulder dress with a high slit and a red silk belt around it — and still works with her today (he also designed clothes for the previous three first ladies).
Praised for its elegance, the above mentioned outfit joins a roster of others that seem to define her personal style — which may overall be considered chic and coastal elite, a product of her life in New York prior to her arrival inside the White House.
Some examples include the flowy white Dior dress she donned while unveiling the White House Christmas decorations in November 2017 …
… The eye-catching Celine knee-length dress she debuted on a diplomatic trip to Ghana in October of 2018 …
… And what she wore while visiting the Korean War Memorial in June of this year: a $1,300 Rosetta Getty dress with white leather Manolo Blahnik stilettos.
Criticism Of The First Lady’s Style
Some of the first lady’s choices, though, have not been spared criticism.
Take her four-country solo trip to Africa in 2018, for example, when she was photographed wearing a pith helmet in Kenya, a fashion choice that led to a barrage of criticisms given the hat’s racist history. Donned by European colonial armies in both Asia and Africa toward the end of the 19th century and eventually sported by Westerners in the tropics, the pith helmet reminds many of colonial oppression. Following a slew of condemnations, Melania Trump stated in an interview: “I wish people would focus on what I do and not what I wear.”
Back in 2019, Pierre told WWD that his client’s fashion choices are not meant to “subliminally cast political messages.” His statement was in reaction to the public’s scrutiny of a Burberry dress — a British brand — she wore at Trump’s second State of the Union speech, which was delivered while Brexit negotiations made headlines across Europe and the United States. “It has nothing to do with England or Brexit,” Pierre said. “If I would have to think of all these things when I look at dresses and outfits, I would lose my mind.”
Luckett begs to differ: “I don’t think anyone in that position and degree of power and visibility could possibly not be surrounded by advisors who are very aware that every item of clothing makes a statement,” she said.
Another fashion selection that drew nearly hysteric denunciations was the first lady’s decision to not wear a headscarf while visiting Saudi Arabia, a country where women are legally and religiously required to cover their hair in public.
Then there were the sky-high (and beautiful) stilettos that she was seen in while boarding a plane to Texas to survey the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. Although the first lady changed into sneakers before de-boarding, critics found her high-fashion footwear selection to be at odds with the sentiments elicited by Hurricane Harvey and a potential impediment when actually carrying out her official task once in Texas.
It’s important to note that, at least at the start of her husband’s presidency, a lot of designers — a group that tends to be more progressive than not — simply refused to dress Trump’s wife. Since then, she’s donned the likes of Gabriela Hearst, known for her sustainable clothing, and Gucci, also associated with a progressive agenda.
But in what will likely be the fashion selection connected to her legacy, Melania wore a now-infamous Zara jacket in June 2018 while visiting a detention center for migrant children on the border. “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” read the back of the coat. The outfit was condemned for its supposed immigration-related remarks, while others noted it was one of the few affordable items the first lady donned during her role in the White House.
Whether you’re a staunch supporter of the first lady’s style selections or an ardent fault-finder, one thing is certain: clothes elicit reactions, provoke thoughts and tug at one’s heartstrings. But that, perhaps, says more about us — a captive audience — than about the first lady herself.