Editor’s Note: 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.
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.
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.)
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.)