When first lady Melania Trump first stepped out in front of the press Friday in Nairobi, Kenya, she was wearing an outfit suitable for the setting. She was at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, ready to pet and bottle-feed baby elephants, who were prancing and playing with their caretakers on a large mound of red clay-like dirt, which is why the first lady’s khaki jodhpur pants tucked into tall, brown leather riding boots, and crisp, white tailored shirt seemed appropriate, if a bit of a gamble.
While most people likely wouldn’t want to pair thick, red-orange mud and splashing milk-drunk baby pachyderms with a white top, sartorially, Melania Trump is not most people.
But when she moved on to her next activity, a guided safari a half-hour later at the adjacent Nairobi National Park, the first lady had added an accessory to her get up: a pristine white pith helmet. It was very “Out of Africa,” an homage perhaps to the fabled 1985 Meryl Streep and Robert Redford film, in which Streep stars as Karen Blixen, an independent woman who takes over a farm in rural Kenya in the 1920s.
However, with the hat, Trump’s outfit might have tipped the scales, moving from a practical accessory dangerously close to costume territory evocative of colonialists.
The hat was widely used by European militaries in their colonies throughout Africa and in India, according to Gentleman’s Gazette, and became a popular sun hat for civilian Europeans visiting or living in colonies in the 1930s. US President Theodore Roosevelt wore his pith helmet while on the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition after his presidency in 1909.
Matt Carotenuto, a historian and coordinator of African Studies at St. Lawrence University, compared the hat choice to “(showing) up on an Alabama cotton farm in a confederate uniform,” saying that Trump on Friday “(completed) the stereotype trifecta—elephants, orphans and even the pith helmet.”
While pith helmets are still available for purchase online and in hat shops, they have come to symbolize white colonialist rule over the years, and, according to The Guardian, “a symbol of status – and oppression.” It’s unclear if Trump was aware of the meaning, and her office has not responded to CNN’s request for comment on the hat.
There is no need to wear a helmet on the type of safari Trump was taking; she was comfortably stowed in the backseat of a Toyota Land Cruiser; however, the helmet is largely used as more of a sun hat. The Secret Service agents in the vehicle were not wearing hats or helmets, and the guide seated behind her wore a uniform beret. Moreover, while there are no enforced rules or regulations for what to wear on a safari, it is widely suggested that participants avoid bright whites, reds and neon shades.
On the rest of the trip, Trump has worn largely neutral outfits, often in contrast to her hosts.
In Malawi on Thursday, she wore a silk taupe dress with pockets on the chest, paired with a leather belt. In Ghana on Wednesday, she chose a belted olive canvas top with chest pockets and khakis, as her hosts on the Cape Coast wore outfits made of colorful kente cloth. On Tuesday in Accra, she wore a rust red and white striped dress with a tie at the neck. The one exception, thus far, came Thursday night as she arrived in Kenya in a white dress printed with birds paired with a bright yellow belt.
Former first lady Michelle Obama wore bright, colorful outfits on her trips to the continent, and her predecessor, Laura Bush, generally stuck with her signature solid suits.
Trump will close out the week, her first major solo international trip, in Egypt on Saturday.