Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Many Americans got their first glimpse of Melania Trump when she appeared on the February 2005 cover of Vogue as “Donald Trump’s New Bride.” Nowhere on the cover is her name, a perfunctory detail in light of the Ring, the Dress, the Wedding! And what a capital-D dress it is.
Her strapless Dior gown has a bedazzled body-hugging silhouette that explodes into ruched satin and sequins. It’s hard to tell where her enormous veil ends and her enormous gown begins. The veil obscures her face, but not her gigantic diamond necklace. Her left hand is placed just so, making sure her ring is on display.
This is not, however, a timeless wedding dress. It is very much a dress from 2005. It comes from a style that, like the Trump ethos itself, is brash in its excess, proud of its wild extravagance. This thing cost a lot of money, it would like you to know. It is pre-recession style, when flagrant displays of wealth were to be celebrated. Clothes were fashionable because they were so conspicuously expensive — not the other way around. It’s a style which, now that Melania Trump is about to become the First Lady of the United States, could be ripe for a comeback.
Melania Trump is no tastemaker. She looks good because she is a former model with access to high-end clothing. Like her husband’s ill-fitting suits, the most remarkable thing about her clothes is how expensive they are. She made a good Vogue cover model in February 2005 because her predilection for decadence was in style at the time.
Her wedding dress was the finale look of the Christian Dior fall 2004 couture show, which featured creations so large and unwieldy that model Karolina Kurkova had to be helped off the stage after getting stuck in the exit. This was not the Dior of Raf Simons, who left the brand last year and whose weird, minimalist, futuristic designs color our recent memory of the label. Nor is it quite the Dior of current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, who sent a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “We Should All Be Feminists” down her first Dior runway show in September of this year. This was the Dior of John Galliano: maximalist, romantic, and oh so of its time.
This was 2000s style, an era that gave birth to every iteration of monogrammed designer purse, the very concept of “bling,” and triple-digit velour sweatsuits. It produced TV shows called, without irony, Rich Girls and The Fabulous Life (and, of course, The Apprentice).
The conspicuous consumption that dominated early aughts fashion reached its peak with the Louis Vuitton Tribute Patchwork bag, which sold for $52,500 and was not so much one bag as it was 14 bags sewn together. As an August 2007 Washington Post article on the bag reported, this was an accessory for the “ultrawealthy” who craved “products and services that set them apart from those who are merely wealthy.” Bad taste is egalitarian, but only the ultrawealthy could afford to look truly hideous (yes, style is subjective, but just look at this bag). Just over a year later, President George W. Bush addressed the nation about the economic crisis to come.
Status symbols didn’t disappear with the recession, but designer logos and other obvious displays of purchasing power haven’t been at the forefront of fashion in the past eight years. Louis Vuitton’s monogrammed purses gave way to the Céline Trapeze bag, whose logo is discreet enough to be hidden underneath the wearer’s arm. Jewelry trends favored delicate strands and studs over giant baubles. There was moratorium on necklaces on the red carpet. Even gowns, where extravagance is commonplace, swapped ruffles for minimalism. Compare Melania’s Vogue cover to the magazine’s April 2014 issue, which also featured its cover model, Kim Kardashian, in a wedding dress.
Save for her honking diamond engagement ring (that last image of conspicuous consumption that will apparently never die), Kim is not wearing any jewelry. Her Lanvin gown is big and satiny, but its lines are clean, with no ruffles or rhinestones. She is not being swallowed by a veil. It is about as restrained as a giant white ballgown can be. Or, look at Melania’s dress next to another famous Dior: the pink gown Jennifer Lawrence wore to pick up her Oscar in 2013. It has the exact same silhouette as Melania’s wedding gown, but, like most of Simons’s creations for the house, is totally devoid of embellishment. It might be just as expensive as any of Galliano’s gowns, but it doesn’t attempt to bowl you over with the sheer cost of labor and materials that must have gone into producing it.
But like all trends, minimalism and restraint have their expiration dates. Melania Trump may bring back those pre-recession tendencies because as First Lady she will have the platform to do so. The First Lady has a strange, undefined role in the 21st century, but one thing’s for certain: She will stand beside her husband, smiling, waving, and wearing clothes. And in doing so, she has the ability to move the fashion needle, to launch a designer’s career, sell out dresses, and define the look of an era. She could do for a resurgence of flash and brash what Nancy Reagan did for the color red and Jackie O did for the pillbox hat.
Melania will be following on the heels of a First Lady who moved that fashion needle perhaps more than anyone else in history. Michelle Obama had a difficult line to walk when she moved into the White House. The country was entering its worst economic downturn in recent memory, and she was the wife of the first black president. As such, she had to navigate expectations of decorum, respectability politics, and a responsibility to the American fashion industry. Too ostentatious in her dress and she would’ve been denounced as a modern-day Marie Antoinette. But as a black woman, she couldn’t afford to look anything less than polished — a single hair out of place and she would’ve been equally torn apart as sloppy and unprofessional.
Michelle Obama’s first Vogue cover in March 2009 showcased the style she’d wear for much of the next eight years: a sleek, sleeveless, single-color sheath. Her most prominent accessory was not a loud piece of jewelry, but her signature toned arms, which by then had already caused all sorts of ridiculous anxiety and brouhaha. On the inside of the magazine, she wore J.Crew. Just weeks into her tenure as First Lady, her influence on fashion was tangible. The custom one-shoulder white Jason Wu gown she wore to Barack Obama’s first inaugural ball had made the young designer a household name.
Melania is not walking into the White House with nearly as many constraints nor concerns as her predecessor. Her husband brags about how much money he has; it was practically a cornerstone of his campaign. Many of her detractors might be quick to assume that as an Eastern European former underwear model, she’s too “tacky” to have any serious impact on the fashion industry. Such assumptions, however, are not only sexist, but they’ve also already been disproven. The white Roksanda dress she wore to give her plagiarized speech at the RNC sold out almost immediately.
Melania’s overall style is too generic to pin down easily, but the most consistent parts of her look remain stuck in the 2000s. Her long shiny hair, deep tan, and smoky eyeshadow have not changed in over a decade, save a shift to a more modern center part from heavy side-swept bangs. For shoes, she favors Louboutins, a bastion of aughts-era red carpet wear that say more about the wearer’s pocketbook than personal style. When standing beside her husband on the campaign trail, she stuck mostly to luxe brands with a long history in the spotlight, like Gucci, Balmain, and Ralph Lauren, over up-and-coming designers or affordable pieces (unlike her stepdaughter Ivanka, she doesn’t have a Made in China clothing line to push on the masses). She’s appeared over the years at fashion shows and major events like the Met Gala, where she’s tended toward anything exuberant, shiny, sparkly, or body-conscious, not unlike her wedding gown. She may have been wearing this look long enough for it to finally come back around to cutting edge.
But a major reason for 2000s style to make a comeback has nothing to do with Melania: Fashion is cyclical, to the point of predictability. We’ve done the ’80s and ’90s to death. The 2000s is just the next decade on the roster. Not all trends will rise from the dead, but one already finding its way back on the runways is the use of designer logos. In her spring 2017 ready-to-wear show, Chiuri branded many pieces with “Christian Dior,” a practice Simons avoided like the plague but Galliano employed liberally, resulting in his most iconic pieces like the newspaper dress and “J’adore Dior” T-shirts. Chiuri’s splashing of “Dior” on a pair of sandals or a bra strap is slightly more subtle than wearing the words “Juicy” across your derriere, but the message is still the same: I want you to know, unequivocally, that I am wearing expensive designer clothing.
Melania Trump does not speak much, but she will be on display for the next four years to come, and her clothes will speak volumes. We will be listening.