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What was Melania Trump’s fashion legacy after four years?

As first lady of the United States, her style choices left more questions than answers. The Financial Times’ Harriet Agnew attempts to make sense of it all.

What was Melania Trump’s fashion legacy after four years?

First lady Melania Trump stands next to the 2020 Official White House Christmas tree as it is presented on the North Portico of the White House, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump will leave a lasting style legacy. From the giant red ties and billowing Brioni suits to his signature blond comb-over and Make America Great Again baseball cap, Potus has been consistent – sartorially speaking at least. 

The same cannot be said for his wife Melania. Despite her background as a fashion model, during the past four years as Flotus, the third Mrs Trump’s wardrobe is notable for its inconsistency. It stands out as much for what it didn’t do, as what it did.

US First Lady Melania Trump while on a safari in Nairobi National Park, October 2018. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

“Unlike many of the first ladies before her, there won’t be a signature style with Melania,” said Lauren Rothman, a Washington-based stylist, pointing to Nancy’s “Reagan Red”, Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats and Michelle Obama’s cardigans (covering those famously toned arms). Trump’s image is anchored in her poise, added Rothman: “The storms don’t sway her. She always looks perfectly put together.”

Melania Trump wearing a Dior gown at the Red Cross Ball at Mar-a-Lago with US President Donald Trump. (Photo: AFP)

Perhaps more than any other first lady before her, we are destined to interpret Trump’s enigmatic outfit choices through our own political lens. For the president’s diehard supporters, she’s an elegant model of uxorial loyalty, immaculate in Dior suits, glossy caramel blow dry and Christian Louboutin stilettos.

“The president’s critics will say she’s a fembot, a quiet trophy wife,” says Kate Bennett, a CNN reporter in the White House and author of Free, Melania: The Unauthorized Biography. Some in the anti-Trump movement even cast her as a captive princess who uses clothes to support Democrat causes, showing streaks of rebellion from her gilded Trump Tower in the only way available to her.

Historically first ladies have taken an “America First” attitude towards their wardrobes and nurtured a close association with US designers: Kennedy and Oleg Cassini; Reagan with Adolfo and James Galanos; and every first lady since Kennedy has worn Oscar de la Renta.

Obama, Trump’s immediate predecessor, gained acclaim for mixing high-end (Vera Wang) with high street (J Crew and Target), and promoting lesser-known American designers such as Jason Wu and Christian Siriano. She tied her fashion choices to the country, cause or prevailing political wind, and used clothes as a tool to illustrate her values: diversity, creativity, entrepreneurship.

A 2010 academic paper, The Michelle Markup: The First Lady’s Impact On Stock Prices Of Fashion Companies, highlighted Obama’s halo effect on the industry. Its author David Yermack, professor of finance at the New York University Stern School of Business, calculated that during 2009 Obama’s public appearances led to immediate gains of more than US$5 billion (S$6.64 billion) in shareholder value for various brands, in a pattern that closely tracks her daily schedule.

First lady Melania Trump shoes are seen as she participates in the US Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots Drive at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

No such “Melania markup” has emerged. The way that Trump dresses is “a missed opportunity” to spotlight something, be it a brand, a business or a cause, said Yermack. “She has a background in the fashion industry but never seemed to want to put herself out there as a role model in the way that Michelle Obama did.”

Melania wears Manolo Blahnik stilettos with aviator sunglasses and an army green jacket on her way to survey the damage wreaked by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. (Photo: AFP)

Obama knew that she was an extension of her husband’s political brand, and her fashion choices reflected this. Early indications suggest that we may see a similar strategy with Jill Biden, the wife of president-elect Joe Biden. In the run-up to the November US elections, she sported a limited-edition pair of Stuart Weitzman boots, which read “Vote” on the side.

The political messaging vis-a-vis Melania Trump is more complex. At first her fashion choices seemed to encompass her husband’s pledge to Make America Great Again. At the January 2017 inauguration she wore a sky-blue cashmere dress by quintessentially American designer Ralph Lauren. For her long white inauguration gown, she collaborated with Herve Pierre, a French-born American immigrant, after her then senior adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff dissuaded her from picking Karl Lagerfeld.

In her book Melania And Me: The Rise And Fall Of My Friendship With The First Lady, Winston Wolkoff recalled her view that by choosing American immigrant designers for the inauguration, Trump – herself “one of America’s most famous immigrants” – “could send a unifying message to balance out her husband’s anti-immigration rhetoric”.

US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump (pictured December 5, 2020 at a rally in Valdosta, Georgia) both contracted the coronavirus weeks before the November 3, 2020 presidential election AFP/Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

Winston Wolkoff wrote: “Melania loved the idea of getting to play designer for a day, but highlighting to the press that she and Herve were both immigrants was out of the question. Her take was to let the clothing speak for itself and not to bother with the backstory.”

That approach was cemented in the days ahead. Arriving in Palm Beach, Trump stepped off Air Force One in a red Givenchy cape dress, followed by a hot-pink gown by Dior at the Red Cross Ball in Mar-a-Lago.

There were other sartorial choices that seemed at times to indicate that her husband’s politics hadn’t made their way wholeheartedly to her wardrobe.

Melania wears a US$39 Zara jacket emblazoned with ‘I Really Don’t Care, Do U?’ to visit a migrant child detention centre on the US-Mexico border in June 2018. (Photo: AFP)

As the president promised to revive US industry and urged the country to “Buy American”, his wife posed for her official first lady portrait in April 2017 in a chic black tuxedo suit by Italian designer Dolce & Gabbana.

“Melania dresses how she thought she ought to dress as a first lady. That was her interpretation of it,” said Isabel Spearman, a style expert and former special adviser to Samantha Cameron. “Sometimes it was not particularly well read for the situation she was dressing for.”

At worst this made Trump appear out of touch with reality. She wore vertiginous Manolo Blahnik stilettos with aviator sunglasses and an army green jacket boarding a plane to visit the damage wreaked by Hurricane Harvey. On a rare solo trip in October 2018, she donned an Out of Africa-esque outfit during a visit to Kenya, complete with pith helmet – a colonialist anachronism.

And, most infamously of all, Trump wore a US$39 Zara jacket emblazoned with “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” to visit a migrant child detention centre on the US-Mexico border in June 2018. Her communications chief gave it the hashtag #itsjustajacket, but Trump backtracked in an interview with ABC News a few months later. She said she wore the jacket as a riposte to the leftwing press, adding that, “I would prefer [the media] focus on what I do and on my initiatives than what I wear.”

But by remaining largely silent and making few solo public appearances, Trump has left us with no other choice than to focus on what she wears, to look for clues on what she’s thinking and feeling.

Melania wearing a fuchsia pussy-bow blouse by Gucci to watch her husband take part in a presidential debate, October 2016. (Photo: AFP)

Bennett said: “I don’t believe in Melania Trump coincidences” when it comes to her wardrobe. “She knows what she’s doing.”

“I have a theory that she wears menswear when they’re fighting,” she added. “We know that Donald Trump likes very feminine women: eighties-throwback feminine – body-con dresses and short hemlines. When Melania wears a suit it’s a moment of independence.”

Bennett believes that there’s a “playful ambiguity” to how Trump dresses. She pointed to Donald Trump’s famous “pussy grabbing” video, which surfaced in October 2016 and records him making extremely lewd remarks about women a decade earlier. Days after the video emerged, Melania Trump wore a fuchsia pussy-bow blouse by Gucci to watch her husband take part in a presidential debate. Solidarity with the sisterhood or subliminal support of her husband? Who knows. Coincidence? Bennett doesn’t think so.

And then in January 2018, Trump appeared in public alongside her husband for the first time since allegations of his affair with porn star Stormy Daniels became public. She picked a white Christian Dior pantsuit for the occasion.

First lady Melania Trump walks with Wendy Sartory Link, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections, right, after voting at the Morton and Barbara Mandel Recreation Center, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Rassol)

Winston Wolkoff was adamant that this was a disastrous choice: “The white suit was practically Hillary Clinton’s trademark, the uniform of anti-Trumpers, a symbol of female empowerment and the #MeToo movement,” she wrote in her book. “The more I begged, the more she laughed it off, saying ‘Oh Stephanie! Come on. I mean, really. Get over it!’” She wore the Dior.

We will probably never know what Trump was really trying to say with her ambiguously political fashion choices. What we do know is that the one thing that has remained consistent throughout her time as Flotus is her composure. Perhaps when historians, aspiring politicians and future first ladies contemplate her legacy, it will be her ability to appear publicly unflappable. Maintaining this – regardless of what the perma-tanned man in the giant red tie and billowing Brioni suit is doing next to her – is no mean feat.

By Harriet Agnew © 2020 The Financial Times