Whether you’re a common citizen or the President or first lady of the United States, an audience with the Queen of England is a big deal. But when you’re as glamorous and mysterious as the current US first lady, the pressure is even more so.
As such, all eyes will be on Melania Trump as she navigates the often tricky waters of palace traditions, royalty and impressing one of the longest reigning monarchs in modern history.
“This trip, like most foreign travel, is very complex,” Trump’s deputy chief of staff Stephanie Grisham recently told CNN. “Mrs. Trump spends a significant amount of time preparing for every trip. This includes protocol briefings, event memos, logistics, speech preparation when applicable and research and selection for the gift exchange.”
In other words, it’s not exactly like she’s popping over for tea, as she and President Donald Trump did last summer at Windsor Palace when they were guests of the Queen for a scant half an hour.
This week, the Trumps will be honored guests at an official state banquet at Buckingham Palace, a white-tie affair for several hundred VIPs and diplomats, including members of the royal family and the President’s own adult children, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Tiffany Trump, who are also making the trip across the pond.
There will be cocktails and dinner, musical performances of anthems, and speeches by both Trump and the Queen. Though the banquet is paramount event of the first day in the United Kingdom, prior to it in the afternoon, there is a welcome ceremony by the Queen and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (Charles and Camilla, as most Americans less formally acknowledge them) at the palace. That ceremony includes an inspection by the royals and the Trumps of the British honor guard troops, and a royal gun salute, fired off in Green Park and the fabled Tower of London.
Then there’s lunch with the Queen, and a tour for the first couple of items of historical significance to the United States which are part of the official royal collection.
It’s a lot – and it’s the kind of trip that involves multiple arms of the White House coordinating apparatus.
“We send advance teams ahead and once on the ground they coordinate with staff and Mrs. Trump on all aspects of the trip – event and press logistics are probably the largest components,” Grisham said. “We work very closely with our counterparts in the West Wing so that everyone is aware of each principal’s movements and we also work alongside Secret Service to ensure safety.”
Don’t stress it
The role of first lady has no defined rules or job description, one of the nebulous elements of being the spouse of the leader of the United States, but it is assumed that she is a de facto representative of the country, and that she will behave accordingly as such.
It’s a lot of pressure to mingle with the Queen, a monarch who since the 1950s has met 10 of the last 11 presidents, and can cause even the most astute first lady to have anxiety.
There was the famous “faux pas” committed by first lady Michelle Obama during her first audience with the Queen in 2009 at Buckingham Palace, when she touched her in a manner more familiar than was considered by many to be appropriate.
Obama, a well-known hugger, placed her arm around the Queen’s back – a no-no. Obama wrote in her memoir, “Becoming,” that she was simply commiserating with the Queen over what a pain it can be to stand for hours in uncomfortable high heels.
“Forget that she sometimes wore a diamond crown and that I’d flown to London on a presidential jet; we were two tired ladies oppressed by our shoes,” Obama recalled. “I then did what’s instinctive to me anytime I feel connected to a new person, which is to express my feelings outwardly. I laid a hand affectionately across her shoulder.”
Obama recovered from that protocol break, of course, and she and the Queen met several times through President Barack Obama’s presidency.
“There’s always a concern first ladies have about protocol, even someone such as Barbara Bush, who had been second lady and married to the head of the CIA, and knew more about protocol than most, even before she became first lady,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
Bush wrote in her memoir about a trip to Great Britain during President George H.W. Bush’s first year in office, and how she asked the Queen a question during a visit to Buckingham Palace. Bush wrote the Queen responded “rather coolly,” saying, “I thought, ‘Oh my, you are not supposed to ask the Queen a direct question or something.”
“It can be nerve-wracking,” Brower said. “But the Queen and the Bushes grew close and the Queen and Prince Philip surprised them with a fireworks display after one dinner at Buckingham Palace before they left office.”
First lady Betty Ford got nervous around the Queen, too. During a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip to Washington in 1976, Ford recalled in her memoir that though the Queen was “easy to deal with,” she mixed up calling her “Your Highness” and “Your Majesty.”
For the record, Prince Philip is the former, the Queen is the latter. Ford wrote she would “give myself four stars” for how she handled the visit, were it not for the slip of the titles.
Practice your protocol
Titles, assignments, walking and speaking directives – all are issues handled well the more the first lady can brush up on protocol, something Melania Trump pays attention to with diligence, even if her husband does not.
“Diplomatic protocol is the foundation of a state visit and is critical to the visit’s success,” said Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Washington, an institute that teaches key elements of protocol and diplomacy.
“It’s not only important to follow the hosting country’s customs and courtesies but to show appreciation and respect to their cultural beliefs. Without it, there would be chaos and uncertainty while trying to build trusting relationships,” she added.
One of the components of a successful dignitary visit is how uncomplicated the trip is in terms of demands from the guest, and according to a UK official speaking to CNN, the requests for the Trump visit have been shockingly simple.
“The US side have been exceptionally straightforward and easy to deal with on the planning for the trip,” the official said. “They basically accepted the program as we have set out. They haven’t asked for anything at all unexpected or any particular additions to the program.”
Those who have worked with the first lady on past social events, from the White House residence staff to volunteers, have cited her kindness and professionalism, as well as her attention to detail.
On the second evening of the London trip, it falls to the Trumps to reciprocate the dinner at the palace with one the following night at Winfield House, the residence of the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The Queen won’t attend, but in her place, Prince Charles and Camilla will. It will be black tie, and it will also require all the minute-by-minute planning of a state dinner.
Melania Trump, according to a White House official, has been hard at work on the proper protocol for the evening, making sure she has been an active participant, even from Washington, in the selection of the evening’s menu, flowers, color scheme and seating charts.
That everything goes off without a hitch is perhaps even more important considering the country.
“I wouldn’t call the British people rigid, but consistently formal!” Eyring said. “The USA is definitely a more casual country and our people have a friendly, but relaxed, attitude when meeting people. However, at the monarchy and presidential level, formality is expected especially during the official arrival, state banquet and ceremonies.”
One of the most important parts in the art of protocol is the gift exchange, which happens between the host and the visiting guests. The gifts aren’t simple, either. They are complex and personal and most nod to some sort of obscure historical touchstone between the two countries, or the gifter and the receiver.
During their recent trip to Japan, for example, Trump gave a desk set with a fountain pen made from an oak tree that stands on the campus of Harvard University to the new Empress of Japan. Empress Masako years earlier had studied economics at Harvard. She gave Melania Trump an ornamental box with a traditional Japanese design in return.
“The first lady is very involved with the gift selection,” Grisham said of the gifts for the UK trip. “Working with the State Department, Mrs. Trump takes great care in selecting meaningful gifts.”
The US Department of State Office of Protocol is where most of the checks and balances of successful diplomacy occur, and it’s the job of the office to make sure the “principals” are prepped.
“The office carefully to prepare our President and first lady (and delegation) of what is expected all before the moment the door of Air Force One opens in England,” Eyring said. “This will include cultural customs and courtesies of the UK, arrival, motorcade route, security, media, weather, which could affect dress and attire at different events.”
Michelle Obama had a difficult time with her dress with the gusty winds during their visit.
“(It also includes) when and how to greet Her Majesty, ceremonial welcome, the inspection of the guard of honor, tours, exchange of gifts, where to stand and what to do at a memorial ceremony, receiving line, guests attending, seating and toasts at the official banquet,” Eyring said. “Every detail possible is coordinated and briefed.”
It’s something to think about when all the public gets are the forward-facing images of the visit – the intricacies behind the scenes and in the weeks leading up are much more complex.
Dress the part
Diplomacy can sometimes come in the fashions worn by a first lady on a foreign trip, something Melania Trump has learned from previous visits abroad. In France, for example, she has worn the iconic French fashion house Christian Dior. The last times she visited London, she opted for a dress for an event that was made by Britain’s Stella McCartney. Sometimes the label matches the country in that sense, but sometimes, for Trump, it does not. On her recent trip to Japan, she donned a $3,500 jumpsuit by Italian fashion house Loro Piana.
“The best choice of outfit, in terms of diplomacy, would be to wear the work of an English designer or a young American designer,” said Kate Betts, a longtime fashion journalist and author of “Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.”
“The first family should represent our country with dignity and pride, but it would also be a gracious gesture if they acknowledged the British fashion industry in some way,” she said.
The first lady has earned a reputation as a stylish first lady, and as a former model, she certainly knows fashion. Yet she has not adhered to the typical unwritten rules of dressing as an homage to a country or a particular cultural representation.
Occasionally her outfits subtly reflect the places which she visits – a flowing, black jumpsuit and big gold belt two years ago in Saudi Arabia; a white dress, the color of peace, for a trip to Israel; bold designs by Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana for a visit to that country in 2017.
There have also been a few missteps – the pith helmet she wore in Kenya stirred headlines about colonialism, for example. But those who know her say Trump much prefers to select her outfits on her own, determined by what she feels looks best and is most appropriate for the occasion.
“I believe Michelle Obama set the bar high in terms of fashion diplomacy – she wore the designers and colors of other countries beautifully but she also supported American fashion – particularly young, diverse designers – consistently,” Betts said. “If the first lady has something to say, this is a great stage on which to deliver her message.”
Jackie Kennedy turned the attention of France her way when she accompanied her husband on a trip there in 1961 by wearing couture Givenchy, a revered French designer. That same year, Jackie visited with a young Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace for a state banquet, and the Queen felt somewhat eclipsed by the glamorous first lady, who wore a sleek, ice blue silk dress.
The Queen also wore a blue dress, but more a royal blue, with a flouncy full skirt. After the visit, Jackie told photographer Cecil Beaton that she was “unimpressed with the palace furnishings and the Queen’s dress and and hairstyle.” The trip of Jackie to the UK drew raves from the British tabloids, largely due to her modern style, but it left the Queen feeling less than hospitable.
Trump will likely not try to sartorially overshadow the Queen; last summer when they met she wore a very simple pale pink skirt suit with a thin belt, the picture of appropriateness.
Her more recent predecessors kept it simple, and American, during visits that will very much follow the same schedule as the one Trump is about to embark on. For a state banquet at the Palace, Laura Bush in 2003 wore a burgundy gown by iconic American designer Carolina Herrera. Michelle Obama in 2011 wore a white gown with a crossover-strap bodice by American designer Tom Ford to the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace, and a black gown by Ralph Lauren the following night to host the royals at Winfield House. For the palace state banquets, both first ladies wore long white gloves, as Trump will on Monday night – the gloves are a traditional component of a “white tie” dress code.
Remember, the Queen is human
Perhaps most importantly for Trump to keep in mind – if there’s room after all the events, the protocol rules, the outfits, the parties and the VIPs – is that at the end of the day the Queen of England is an actual person, not merely the figurehead of the monarchy. Painting her into a box of formality might be compromising to Trump’s interaction.
“Generalizations about people of a different culture are common because we look at them through our own cultural lenses. Generalizations can be changed once you understand why they behave, speak or look a certain way,” Eyring said.
After all, the Queen eventually struck up cordial and personal relationships with several American first ladies, and that could become the case for Trump as well.
“Queen Elizabeth and Nancy Reagan had a good relationship. Mrs. Reagan wrote about a 1983 visit with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the Reagans’ California ranch in her memoir “My Turn,” Brower, who authored the book on first ladies, said.
Reagan wrote: “We had told them about the ranch during our visit to Windsor Castle, and the Queen was dying to go riding with Ronnie.”
“But the weather was awful, so instead the Reagans left the ranch to go on the royal yacht Britannia,” Brower said.
Of the last-minute change of plan, Reagan wrote: “I spent that evening with the Queen, sitting on a sofa in the large living room, talking about our children like old friends.”
Brower also acknowledges an interaction at the White House in 1976 with the Queen and Betty Ford.
“The Fords met the Queen and Prince Philip at the entrance of the Diplomatic Reception Room before a white-tie state dinner. They escorted them to the elevator to go up the residence for a few minutes before dinner,” Brower said. “When the elevator door opened the Fords’ 24-year-old son Jack was standing there in jeans and a T-shirt. The Queen looked at Betty Ford and said, reassuringly, ‘Don’t worry, Betty, I have one of those at home, too.’ ”
She was talking about Prince Charles.
CORRECTION: A photo in this story has been updated to correctly identify first lady Jackie Kennedy.