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Melania Trump's Problematic Elegance

The First Lady represents a nostalgia for traditional femininity that gets complicated fast.

Photo: Pedro Pardo/Getty Images

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Melania Trump is a complicated woman. No single image captures the political tension surrounding her appearance better than the February cover of Vanity Fair México. The photo, originally shot for GQ, shows the First Lady dressed in a stark white ensemble with a white manicure. She is twirling a fork in a spool of diamonds, which she is about to eat as if the string of jewels were spaghetti.

That cover photo spread across Twitter on the same day Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a meeting with President Trump over the proposed border wall. Outraged Twitter users called the magazine cover “insensitive in the face of Mexico’s rampant poverty” and a banner of the First Lady’s “total submission” to misogyny. Opulence with a posed smile, this new FLOTUS is already set to be one of the world’s most controversial style influencers.

Meanwhile, many American women are smitten with the former fashion model and skincare and jewelry mogul-turned FLOTUS. “She’s going to be one of the classiest first ladies of our time,” GOP Girl blogger Sean Bianca said in a phone interview. “I love the way she does that heavy black eyeliner. I’m definitely doing mine a little darker now than I did before. I think Melania will have something to do with Americans wanting to look their best. Every woman needs makeup.”

Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Trump already has a trademark look: muted pink lips, smoky eyes, smooth, straight hair, and perpetually tanned skin. And FLOTUS is fully aware that her visibility translates to market influence. As part of her ongoing lawsuit against the Daily Mail for claiming she once worked as an escort, Trump’s lawyer said her role in the White House would provide a “unique, once in a lifetime opportunity” to sell fashion. The suit noted damaging her “brand” curtails her ability to endorse “apparel accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skincare and fragrance” products.

However, conversations about Trump and style rarely discuss her alone. They often pivot around comparisons to women who previously held the same role. The Vanity Fair México profile asked if she is the “new Jackie Kennedy” (as did this very website, pre-election), a comparison Americans are equally obsessed with since she wore a vintage-inspired Ralph Lauren outfit to the inauguration. “The United States hasn’t had anyone since Jackie Onassis with the same fashion sense and the same elegance as Melania,” Sean said. “I personally never thought Michelle Obama was a style icon... As far as style goes, I don’t think they are even in the same league. Melania has a style and an elegance about her.”

When Americans talk about Trump, they are often indirectly talking about race, class, and feminism. “The conversation we’re having about Melania is actually a response to Hillary and Michelle,” said Treva Lindsey, professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Ohio State University. “It’s thinly-veiled racism and sexism. It’s also about restoring what we are used to in the White House, that being a white man and his white wife. It’s part of this idea of not only white political power, but also white cultural power.”

As conservative writer Ilana Mercer blogged back in October: "in her serene, gracious, and beautiful manners and bearing—Mrs. Trump exemplifies a European woman's good breeding."

Today, white supremacist social media accounts and forums like Stormfront are flushed with chatter praising the beautiful FLOTUS. “Melania is is a pure White; a beautiful Lady from fine stock,” wrote Stormfront user Rip59. “It's about time to be PROUD of a magnificent First Lady.” Memes and articles that laud Trump’s sex appeal over Obama’s are commonplace on social media.

Melania herself has never openly courted white nationalist fanfare. But she has defended Donald Trump’s obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate and dismissed anti-Semitic attacks against journalists. “I don’t control my fans,” she famously said in an interview with DuJour.

Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Admirers like Sean don’t believe Trump supports racism. Even so, it’s impossible to miss the nostalgia for traditional femininity in the public discourse about FLOTUS.

“With Melania, there’s a lot of talk of ‘classic beauty’ and other terms that suggest a type of European beauty that is still prized,” Lindsey said. “It’s one thing to proclaim her as a beauty icon. It’s another thing to use that as a way to negate, erase, or demonize someone like Michelle Obama.”

The title “First Lady” is itself seeped in the language of feminine propriety and respectability. Yet it’s Trump’s same association with wealth, luxury, and sex appeal that creates such a stark contrast between her and Kennedy.

“Jackie’s style was much more subtle, low key. To me, Melania’s style is almost Russian. It’s Eastern European,” said Pamela Keogh, author of Jackie Style. “I would say Melania is closer to Nancy Reagan or Pat Nixon. Melania’s style is rich, rich. Very expensive. Where as Jackie’s style was realistic and approachable. Melania is beautiful and she looks amazing, but in an inaccesible way.”

Kennedy famously wore more costume jewelry than diamonds. Her most iconic accessory was a faux pearl necklace. There couldn’t be a greater divide between her and Trump’s spoonful of diamond pasta. “Jackie was deeply involved with bringing American culture to the average American,” Keogh added.

However, there are several traits that Kennedy and Trump do share, aside from their penchant for pink lipstick. Both prioritize motherhood and wifely duties over career aspirations and generally distrust the media, an approach Keogh called “minimum information with maximum politeness.” Trump’s own voice has been largely absent from the flurry of media coverage about her appearance. So far, her hair stylist and makeup artist have given more personal interviews than she has. On the other hand, Trump’s absence from the conversation is not necessarily a sign of subservience. Only time will tell what kind of FLOTUS she will be.

“It’s not necessarily on her to be the one challenging this at all times,” Lindsey added. “I hope her platform on bullying will include the ways we talk to young people about beauty... don’t narrowly put us into just being pretty.”

Watch: Michelle Obama’s Most Symbolic Outfits