The first lady does not dress like a first lady. She doesn’t dress like a politician’s wife at all. Melania Trump’s look is that of the wife of a wealthy businessman – it is about money not people. But then her husband, the US president for the best part of a year, does not identify with being a politician. “I’m a businessman” remains one of his catchphrases, a year after his inauguration.
On inauguration day, when Melania made her debut appearance as first lady, there were signs that she intended to adopt the aesthetic of a traditional White House chatelaine. The raised collar of her skirt suit was a nod to Jackie Kennedy’s iconic tailoring, and duly remarked on as such by every fashion commentator, as was surely the point. The Tiffany-blue colour and the matt glow cashmere suggested the kind of patrician east-coast elegance with which the Kennedys are closely associated and which the Trumps are not. That Melania had been dressed by an iconic American designer – Ralph Lauren – was a retort to Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and the other New York fashion names who had publicly snubbed her business.
But the delicate visual diplomacy of her inauguration look, a pleasant surprise to many Melania-sceptics, did not last. (Her soulmate, after all, has a famously short attention span.) During most of 2018, Melania Trump’s wardrobe has made headlines for flaunting wealth and privilege in the most jarring of contexts. In May, she wore an ostentatiously embroidered Dolce & Gabbana jacket costing $51,500 (£38,300) during a trip to Sicily. (The Washington Post noted icily that the figure was a contrast with the 23 million people being stripped of their medical insurance by her husband.) Undeterred, the first lady went on to choose a fuschia Delpozo dress with a pricetag of $3,000 for a speech to the UN at which she implored that “no child should ever feel hungry”.
But the image that seared itself on to the public consciousness came in August, when Melania Trump wore precipitous black stilettos as she boarded Air Force One to disaster-ravaged Texas. “Who wears stilettos to a hurricane?” asked Vanity Fair.
First ladies are allowed to accept clothing gifts from designers, on the basis that the pieces become goverment property and are sent to the national archives, but Melania Trump is thought to pay for a large proportion of her clothing herself. Her unofficial stylist, Hervé Pierre, told the New York Times that he buys off the rack in Manhattan at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Michael Kors and Christian Dior. He does not always disclose who he is shopping for, but, “I always ask: ‘Was it on the red carpet? Did somebody already wear it?’ Because I don’t want her to be on the Who Wore It Better list.”
The first lady wardrobe has been a political issue since Jackie Kennedy was criticised for favouring Paris designers over American. Michelle Obama used her style as a platform to champion the creativity and economic drive of young American designers from diverse backgrounds. Melania Trump, who delayed moving from Manhattan to the White House for five months after the inauguration, has shown as much reluctance to tow a Washington line in her style as she did in her domestic arrangements. Her wardrobe for the Trumps’ recent tour of Asia made no attempt at diplomacy. Coats and gowns by European luxury names Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Alexander McQueen did not bother to flatter the egos of her hosts in Tokyo and Beijing, as convention dictates. Neither did they suggest a first lady holding dear Trump’s “America first” policy. Her penchant for Dolce & Gabbana is to Trump’s economic policy what her campaign against cyberbulling is to @realDonaldTrump.
The cost of Melania Trump’s Asian tour wardrobe alone has been estimated at £32,000. The first lady has eschewed the unwritten first rule of modern diplomatic dressing, embraced by women in the public eye across the geographical and political map from the Duchess of Cambridge to Michelle Obama, which is that Zara skirts or J Crew cardigans are an essential tool in connecting with ordinary voters. An eye for a high-street bargain is the 21st century equivalent of the cookie recipe, signalling that this high-profile woman is, really, just like us. Trump’s daughter Ivanka has taken note of this – to speak about tax reform for the middle class at a Pennsylvania town hall, she wore a Zara skirt – but the labels in her stepmother’s wardrobe reflect life lived in a bubble of affluence. More significantly, they make not even the vaguest pretence of fellowship with the world beyond. Without saying a word, Melania Trump speaks volumes about her White House.