'No fur' could signal a new Melania Trump

Story highlights

  • Kate Andersen Brower: No fur decision could hint how Melania sees growth of first lady role
  • President Trump's lack of open friendliness to animals could be softened by gesture

Kate Andersen Brower is a CNN contributor and the author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies" and "The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House." Unless otherwise noted, facts in this piece reflect research from those works. The opinions expressed here are hers.

(CNN)The first lady can pick up the phone and change someone's life and she can also, apparently, write a letter to an actress best known for her role in a '90s TV show, and make a political statement.

Kate Andersen Brower
First ladies have always been important advocates for social change. Eleanor Roosevelt because a most notable example in 1939 when she coordinated a performance by African-American opera singer Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall because of her race. And shortly after leaving Washington, former first lady Betty Ford revealed her battle with addiction, touching off a shift in society that allowed others struggling with the same issues to come out of the shadows.
While Melania Trump's decision not to wear fur is obviously less groundbreaking than either of these examples, it shows the tremendous influence first ladies have on our culture -- whether they want it or not.
I would say Melania Trump's anti-fur statement lies somewhere in the space between Eleanor Roosevelt's courage and Betty Ford's bravery ... and Michelle Obama's experimentation with bangs. It's somewhat superficial but not entirely devoid of meaning.
This issue sprang to life when Pamela Anderson, the actress, former Playboy playmate, and honorary director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) tweeted a photo yesterday of a note the first lady sent her thanking her for a Russian-made faux lamb fur coat she sent as a gift after President Trump's inauguration in January. "I am so happy that you chose not to wear fur!,"
Anderson told the first lady in a note with the gift. The retro baby-blue outfit Melania made famous on Inauguration Day was made by Ralph Lauren, whose design house stopped using fur a decade ago.
Melania Trump made no broad proclamation about refusing to wear fur in her note but thanked Anderson for her "support and encouraging words." Not long after Anderson's post, Stephanie Grisham, Trump's East Wing communications director, told CNN via email: "She (Melania) does not wear fur." In the age of social media it was inevitable that the first lady would have to answer the question.
It was a change for a woman who has been photographed wearing fur many times and who does not seem to be succumbing to pressure to wear less expensive clothing and jewelry. Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, by contrast, typically shied away from wearing items that displayed great wealth. But Melania Trump's glamor is not entirely new territory for a first lady -- Nancy Reagan clearly enjoyed wearing pricey fur coats, even though Republican first ladies from an earlier era prided themselves in rejecting sables and minks in favor of more modest attire.
In his so-called Checkers speech, then-Sen. Richard Nixon famously defended himself against charges that he abused a political expense fund by saying that his wife, Pat, did not own a mink coat: "But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything."
Melania Trump's decision could be an indicator of how she hopes to grow into the role of first lady. On previous occasions, she has said she admires Jacqueline Kennedy and she clearly channeled the fashion icon on Inauguration Day. Kennedy, however, made no apologies for wearing leopard fur coats. In fact, the leopard coat-and-hat set Kennedy wore on the cover of Life was so famous and so imitated that fashion designer Halston, who made Jackie's famous pillbox hats, said "she put that animal on the endangered species list."
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And Melania Trump's choice could have a bigger impact, because for a president and first lady, compassion for animals is a must. President Trump's oldest sons, Donald and Eric, have come under attack for their big-game hunting, so maybe this is a way to present a softer, kinder White House. Having pets and treating them well has made first families more likeable and more relatable. In fact, Donald Trump is the first president since William McKinley not to have a dog. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson held up one of his two beagles by his ears in front of the press and that reportedly elicited more angry mail than he was getting at the time about Vietnam.
The Trumps are far from a traditional first family, with a first lady for now choosing to live hundreds of miles away in a New York penthouse.But she is slowly seeing that, even if she may want to, she cannot refuse the power to exert influence and make real change in our society