fashion

A year of glamour and gaffes: Making sense of Melania's style

Updated 20th December 2018
US First Lady Melania Trump travels in a vehicle while on a safari at The Nairobi National Park in Nairobi on October 5, 2018, as she pays a one day visit to the country during her solo tour of Africa promoting her children's welfare programme. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
A year of glamour and gaffes: Making sense of Melania's style
Written by Christina Binkley, CNN
Christina Binkley is an award-winning journalist who writes and comments on fashion and culture. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. For more on the intersection of politics, culture and fashion, watch CNN Original Series "American Style" on Sunday, January 13 and January 20 at 9 p.m. ET.
It's really too bad that the highlights of First Lady Melania Trump's year in fashion are her faux pas. There was, memorably, the "I really don't care. Do U?" jacket she wore ahead of her trip to visit migrant children who had been separated from their parents, and the pith helmet worn on her tour of Kenya -- a nation that emerged from British rule in 1963 -- suggesting she identifies more with 19th-century colonialists than the diplomats who hosted her.
Those were dramatically unfortunate decisions given that they were made on the world stage at moments when her job was clear: to represent the United States.
First Lady Melania Trump sparked backlash when she wore a jacket that read "I don't really care. Do U?" on her way to visit with child migrants on the US-Mexico border.
First Lady Melania Trump sparked backlash when she wore a jacket that read "I don't really care. Do U?" on her way to visit with child migrants on the US-Mexico border. Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Trump's spokespeople have bridled at the attention on her clothing. They would prefer to discuss the valid initiatives she fronts, such as her "Be Best" campaign. But Trump isn't the first First Lady to grapple with the importance of their image.
During a summit in Tanzania in 2013, where Michelle Obama shared the stage with Laura Bush, Obama spoke of her own experience: "While people are sort of sorting through our shoes and our hair, whether we cut it or not ... We take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see," she said. "And, eventually, people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we're standing in front of."
We all speak volumes through the clothing choices we make. But elected officials and their families, given their public platforms, face particularly harsh scrutiny. (Indeed, the president's billowing suits and taped neckties have earned countless column inches.)
Melania and Donald Trump pose with fashion designer Michael Kors at a party at Jean-George in the West Village in New York in 2005.
Melania and Donald Trump pose with fashion designer Michael Kors at a party at Jean-George in the West Village in New York in 2005. Credit: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Image
Because she speaks so rarely, the First Lady's fashion choices are one of the only ways for Americans -- and the world -- to understand her.
Since her husband assumed office, Trump, who says she wears what she likes, has transformed her style remarkably. In the past, her style favored miniskirts and baby-doll dresses. The image of her Raquel Welch-esque figure spilling over the table at Jean-Georges was once typical. But in her current role, Trump has dropped her hems to her shins, and her voluptuous curves have been covered up.
What the public sees of her curves these days is in silhouette, mostly through layers of Ralph Lauren or Dolce & Gabbana. Her new signature look is simultaneously chaste and suggestive, with pencil skirts and tops snugly belted to make the most of her Barbie curves, punctuated with towering stilettos. (It's always the same silhouette, even under the $1,995 Burberry trench coat she wore to arrive in Europe in July.)
Trump walks across the South Lawn with her husband in February 2018. Since becoming First Lady, modest pencil skirts and blouses have become her go-to garments.
Trump walks across the South Lawn with her husband in February 2018. Since becoming First Lady, modest pencil skirts and blouses have become her go-to garments. Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Notably, this sartorial transformation as been achieved without the help of fashion insiders. Soon after her husband was elected in November 2016, designer Sophie Theallet announced she would not dress Melania Trump. Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs soon followed suit.
Two years later, designers still downplay her associations with their brands. The team at Ralph Lauren, whose clothes she often wears, make it known that the First Lady shops independently, without their involvement.
First Lady Melania Trump wore her signature silhouette to speak about her Be Best program at the Rose Garden of the White House in May.
First Lady Melania Trump wore her signature silhouette to speak about her Be Best program at the Rose Garden of the White House in May. Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images
It's easy to understand why. When Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce of Dolce & Gabbana, the rare designers who have been vocal about dressing her, tag photos of her on Instagram with #DGWoman, they're roundly criticized on social media.
However, Trump seems to appreciate their support: She wore one of Dolce & Gabbana's Sicilian-style black lace dresses on Thanksgiving, while the Italian brand was facing backlash over ads that were deemed racist (the company has since apologized) against Chinese people. While retailers in Asia were pulling the brand from shelves, Trump made it clear which side she was on.
Trump wore Dolce & Gabbana to Thanksgiving dinner at Mar-a-Lago. At the time, the brand was facing backlash for ads deemed racist against Chinese people.
Trump wore Dolce & Gabbana to Thanksgiving dinner at Mar-a-Lago. At the time, the brand was facing backlash for ads deemed racist against Chinese people. Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Trump's lack of fashion industry support wouldn't seem so remarkable if Michelle Obama wasn't her predecessor.
The world watched and copied Obama's daring outfit choices with excitement, and her support could launch a young designer's career. This particular brand of influence and support did not go unnoticed: In 2009, she was awarded the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Board of Directors' Special Tribute for her work promoting lesser-known designers from diverse backgrounds, and vocal enthusiasm for fashion in general.
Trump suffers by comparison. Her wardrobe choices are expensive -- Christian Dior, Roland Mouret, Calvin Klein, Victoria Beckham -- but unchallenging and lacking in point of view.
Michelle Obama wore a gown by emerging American designer Brandon Maxwell to a White House state dinner with Singapore's Ho Ching and her husband, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Michelle Obama wore a gown by emerging American designer Brandon Maxwell to a White House state dinner with Singapore's Ho Ching and her husband, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
It can't be denied that Trump had a jarring transition to America's First Lady. While political wives often have decades to become accustomed to their very particular role -- one that offers its own hellish set of contradictory rules requiring them to be both supportive and proactive, traditional and modern -- Trump was thrust into it only after an election whose outcome few predicted. Prior to that, she had an entirely different job as the wife of a bombastic businessman and reality TV host.
However, after two years as First Lady, and a particularly gaffe-filled 2018, Trump must embrace fashion's soft power potential.
As Obama demonstrated, clothes can be used as a tool to champion cherished causes and values. If Trump wants to refocus the conversation on her good deeds, she would be wise to figure out how to do the same.