In Depth

Melania Trump: the hidden messages in her fashion choice

How the US first lady lets her clothes do the talking

While US President Donald Trump is known for his rambling speeches and off-the-cuff remarks, his wife Melania appears to have a very different communication style.

The first lady has remained relatively quiet since her husband was voted in to the White House.

“If he is the Twitter president, she is the Instagram first lady,” says the Washington Post.

As a former model, Melania knows the world of fashion well and appears to be using it as a key messaging tool.

“Her choices are considered, and therefore I find it entirely appropriate to read between the lines, or the seams, as it were,” style reporter Elizabeth Holmes tells CNN.

So what are Melania’s outfits trying to tell the world?

The protest dress 
Melania Trump

“When is a dress just a lovely dress and when is a dress making a veiled political point?” asks The Daily Telegraph. “Sometimes this dichotomy can be tricky to decipher, especially when it's Melania Trump we're talking about.”

The newspaper wonders if there was a “protest message” behind the Valentino dress she chose to wear to welcome King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain to the White House in June. The visit was overshadowed by the row over children being separated from their parents at the Mexican border.

The dress is from Valentino’s Resort 2018 collection by Pierpaolo Piccioli. The creative director, who was walking around in a “Fuck Donald Trump” cap the day after the US election, has said the collection was partly inspired by the idea of cultural melting pots and “finding the harmony in difference”.

Melania might have simply fallen for the dress, says the Telegraph. “Given her previous form though, there is every chance this was a dress selected with the intention of adding to her message of disapproval of the President's policy.”

The eye-catching host 
Melania Trump

Melania taught French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte a thing or two about fashion during their state visit to the US in April.

From the moment she arrived on the White House lawn to welcome the couple, one thing was clear: “The First Lady commanded attention”, says Betsy Klein for CNN.

“Without speaking a word, dressed in a white Michael Kors Collection asymmetrical blazer and skirt - and an eye-catching, custom-made Hervé Pierre hat - Melania Trump spoke volumes. This was her house, her dinner and her terms,” Klein says.

For the state dinner, her first in the White House, Melania “paid homage to their visitors’ home country in an haute couture gown by French fashion house Chanel, with a structured shimmer and sheer detail; finishing off her look with a pair of silver heels from her favourite designer Christian Louboutin”, reports the Irish Independent.

The ‘coloniser’ hat 

Speaking in Egypt at the end of a trip to Africa, Melania appealed for people to “focus on what I do, not what I wear”. But it was difficult to ignore one of her accessories from the tour.

The message of her solo trip to the continent was, she said, to show that: “We care - and we want to show the world we care”. It came months after her husband was reported to have described African nations as “shithole countries” when discussing immigration in the Oval Office.

Nevertheless, it appeared to be going well until she chose a pristine white pith helmet, which has come to symbolise white colonialist rule over the years, to top off her outfit on a guided safari in Nairobi National Park.

It was perhaps meant to be an homage to Out of Africa (1985), in which Meryl Streep plays an independent woman who takes over a farm in Kenya in the 1920s, says CNN.

“However,” says the broadcaster, “with the hat, Trump’s outfit might have tipped the scales, moving from a practical accessory dangerously close to costume territory evocative of colonialists.”

Widely used by European militaries in Africa and India, the hat choice was compared by historian Matt Carotenuto to turning up “on an Alabama cotton farm in a confederate uniform”.

The ‘suffragette tribute’ 
Melania Trump

Earlier this year, with rumours of the president’s extramarital affairs dominating the press, Melania hit back in style after a month of self-imposed exile, by stealing the show at her husband’s first State of the Union address.

It was the first time she had been seen in public since the Washington Post broke news of an alleged affair between the president and a porn star, Stormy Daniels, in 2006, just a month after she had given birth to their son Barron.

Wearing a cream Christian Dior pantsuit, a white silk blouse from Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Louboutin shoes, The Guardian says her look “bore similarities to the outfits many Democratic women wore as a tribute to the suffragette movement during Donald Trump’s address to Congress in February 2017”.

There were also similarities to the all-white outfits Hillary Clinton wore at the Democratic National Convention and to Trump’s inauguration. The symbolism caused the New York Post to ask: “Is Melania trolling Trump?”

The pussy bow 
Melania Trump

One of Melania’s most talked-about fashion choices came at the height of the public furore around her husband’s 2005 comments about grabbing women by the genitals. In October 2016, a recording emerged of Trump boasting: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy.”

His wife subsequently turned up at the second presidential debate wearing a bright fuschia Gucci blouse - topped off with a pussy bow.

The Daily Telegraph wondered if Melania might have a devilish sense of humour: “Mocking her husband, mocking his detractors, the silent smiling wife and potential First Lady… Is there more going on beneath that blow dry than perhaps we’d so far given her credit for?

“For this fashion desk at least, the debate had one clear winner: Mrs Trump’s blouse.”

The ‘veiled’ political statement

During a meeting with Pope Francis in May 2017, Melania dressed in all black with a veil covering her head.

Glamour says “the move was widely questioned since, days before, she had left her head uncovered during a meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia”.

In her first trip abroad as First Lady, she arrived in Saudi Arabia "dressed modestly" The Daily Telegraph says, but she opted not to wear a headscarf, as Saudi women are required by law to do.

Some Twitter users read Melania's decision as a political statement, counterpointing an image of the First Lady with her hair uncovered against photographs of two of her predecessors – Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton - apparently wearing scarves while visiting the country.

NBC points out the choice to cover up in one country and not the other “is a complicated one and is a matter of personal preference, diplomatic protocol, and religious dictates”.

Yet despite a relaxing of the Vatican’s strict rules in recent years, Melania stuck firmly to tradition.

“This could be because she is believed to be a Roman Catholic.” said the BBC at the time, a theory later confirmed by the first lady’s spokeswoman following her visit.

The ‘I don’t care’ jacket

In a questionable moment of sartorial judgement, Melania wore a jacket with “I really don't care, do u?” emblazoned on the back during her journey to visit a holding camp for child migrants on the US-Mexico border.

The wardrobe choice drew considerable comment, since the message appeared at odds with her mission.

Vox called it “a bizarre and insensitive choice both for the nature of the occasion and in a cultural moment where public outrage for Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ family separation policy is fervid and widespread”. 

Manigault Newman had a different view. In her book, Unhinged, she wrote: “I believe Melania uses style to punish her husband. She wore that jacket to hurt Trump, setting off a controversy that he would have to fix, prolonging the conversation about the administration’s insensitivity, ruining the trip itself, and trying to make sure that no one asked her to do something like that again.”

A spokeswoman for Melania insisted “there was no hidden message” in her decision to wear the parka. However, President Trump rather undermined that claim by tweeting that the message on the coat was meant to signify Melania’s contempt for what he called the “Fake News Media”.

Diplomatic dressing

Melania has been described as one of the most important ambassadors for the Trump administration, and by extension the Trump brand. 

However, her latest attempt to dress for the occasion on the president’s state visit to the UK was “more on the nose than off the cuff”, says the Washington Post’s Emily Heil.

As she boarded Air Force One on Sunday evening, she wore a £3,500 Gucci dress, whose very fabric “carried an overtly diplomatic message about the importance of our ‘special relationship’”, emblazoned as it was with images of Tower Bridge, the Big Ben clock tower and a double-decker bus, says the Washington Post’s Emily Heil.

Melania’s “approach to sartorially honouring her hosts during her visit to Britain has been about as subtle as Dick Van Dyke’s British accent in ‘Mary Poppins’,” Heil writes.

The first lady stepped off the plane in a “sleeveless Burberry blouse printed with trompe l’oeil military medals and nautical ropes in the red, white and blue of the union jack – and the stars and stripes”, says Jess Cartner-Morley in The Guardian.

This was followed by a white Dolce & Gabbana suit and matching hat, which sparked comparisons to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Princess Diana. “Unmistakably British,” says Cartner-Morley.

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