Fear and clothing: Melania’s dress is her Trump card
A reflection on the vagaries and charms of fashion
The question of Melania Trump is vexing me. In my heart of hearts I would be tempted to dismiss her as an irrelevant sideshow in the riotous carnival that is The Donald. What does it actually matter what she wears, whether she smiles, or manifests in Davos with her Potus, or slaps his very big hand away in public? And yet.
Like many women before her who have been thrust onto the global stage by virtue of their marital choices she makes for compelling viewing. As her private life remains opaque and her utterances few and far between the pundits pick over the only clues they have behind the compulsions, small tragedies and great sorrows they imagine this “sphinx” is living out in the White House. The only clues are her clothes (and the occasional bitchslap).Consequently, and because she is mostly silent, her fashion choices are freighted with meaning and portent. Each sartorial decision is analysed as if she was an unwitting victim of Joan Rivers’s biting analysis on Fashion Police. What a field day Joan would have had with Melania’s “pussy bow”. A multitude of analysts pounced on it as a quiet sign of dissent against her husband’s pussy grabbing ways. Others read it as a subtle rebuke of the media who were convinced in the pre #metoo days that this would be enough to scupper the Donald’s campaign.
When she manifested in her signature nine-inch stilettos to board Air Force One ostensibly en route to commit acts of charity after Hurricane Harvey she was lambasted by the world for insensitivity. When she disembarked she was wearing sneakers. Had she listened to the tidal wave of opprobrium? Had she planned a practical pair of shoes anyway?In the current “Stormy” climate involving reports of rather dull sex between the porn star and her newly married husband, she is under even more scrutiny.
And on Tuesday night it hit a frenzied pitch. Why did she arrive separately to President Trump for the State of the Union address after ditching him in Davos? Was her white power suit a powerful reminder of last year’s Democratic women’s white clothing campaign protesting Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress? Suffragettes famously wore white; so did a certain Hillary Clinton at Trump’s inauguration.
And what does it mean that she constantly wears international fashion brands in stark contrast to many of her predecessors who only wore American apparel? Is she making a case for a global outlook in stark contrast to her husband’s populist “America First” call to isolationism? Melania bust out the Christian Dior pantsuit (not a dress) at the State of the Union. Maria Grazia Chiuri, the designer at Dior, famously launched her first collection for the house with a T-shirt stating “We must all be feminists”. Reading Melania is like reading tea leaves. It could go either way.
But all this attention to her clothes is reminiscent of the torrents of speculation, gossip and fascination perpetrated on other silent women in history. Marie Antoinette – in her elaborate coiffures of flotillas of ships (perhaps to sail away on) and in her pricey bucolic shepherdess getups free from the corsets of her time – played a game of dress-up which ended very badly. Princess Di used her clothes like chess pieces in the battle of marital popularity and popular fantasy. She cultivated meaning from clever clothing choices and unprecedented stage craft. Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a master at the art of clothing as semaphore, culminating in the horrifying image of her pink Chanel suit drenched in her husband’s blood. She refused to change all day as she followed his body back to Washington. It was a masterstroke of stark communication that still screams with pain, horror and tragic finality all these years later. Melania Trump is dressing up her own spectacle. And we are definitely watching.