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It’s no secret that Melania Trump favors European clothing designers, and hosting a White House state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron gave her yet another chance to drape herself in a dress from a heritage fashion house. This time around, it was a silver haute couture gown with sheer accents from Chanel. She’s worn the brand and many others from overseas designers during her short tenure as first lady.
In her influential role, Melania has largely played by her own rules. (She didn’t move into the White House until five months after her husband’s 2017 inauguration.) The same goes for her sartorial choices, making them fodder for conspiracy theorists and her husband’s detractors alike. While her predecessor Michelle Obama peppered her wardrobe with accessible brands like J. Crew and led young American designers like Jason Wu to prominence, Melania has mostly worn clothes that highlight her immense wealth and privilege.
She’s worn $51,000 jackets and $8,000 gowns and doesn’t always dress in a diplomatic manner. Couture gowns — like the hand-painted, crystal-and-sequin embroidered one Melania wore to the state dinner — can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. While her clothing choices often have no direct link to the foreign dignitaries in her presence or to members of the public, wearing Chanel both honors the French president and his wife and expresses her own opulent style.
There is precedent to her state dinner choice: Michelle Obama wore Indian-American designer Naeem Khan to a state dinner with Indian dignitaries, Korean-American designer Doo-Ri Chung to a state dinner with Korean leaders, and a metallic Versace gown for her final state dinner, in honor of Italy.
Melania’s taste in fashion proved controversial before Donald Trump even took office. During the 2016 presidential race, the former model had tongues wagging when she turned up to the second presidential debate wearing a pussy-bow blouse from Gucci.
The pick was widely panned because the Access Hollywood tape showing her husband bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” had just been leaked, leading to widespread condemnation of his remarks. Critics of the Trumps somewhat implausibly suggested Melania intentionally wore the blouse, as if to flaunt her husband’s misdeeds before the American public.
Melania faced even starker criticism when she headed to hurricane-ravaged Texas last September. She boarded Air Force One in a bomber jacket, aviator shades, and Manolo Blahnik stilettos and was summarily slammed for choosing an outfit more suitable for the pages of a glossy magazine than for comforting Hurricane Harvey’s devastated victims. The first lady’s ensemble led to a particularly cutting take from Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan.
“Trump is the kind of woman who refuses to pretend that her feet will, at any point, ever be immersed in cold, muddy, bacteria-infested Texas water,” Givhan wrote. “She is the kind of woman who may listen empathetically to your pain, but she knows that you know that she is not going to experience it. So why pretend?”
Melania deplaned Air Force One in sneakers, but the damage was already done. A pair of snakeskin pumps had cemented her as a woman just as reptilian as her choice in footwear. And the Texas debacle was not the only time the first lady hasn’t worn what’s expected of her.
During an official trip to Asia in November, she stuck to European designers like Christian Dior, Fendi, and Dolce & Gabbana. While Melania did wear Chinese-inspired gowns — including a black cheongsam with pink fur trim from Gucci — she never once wore an Asian designer, an oversight the South China Morning Post made a point to emphasize.
By wearing mostly European designers stateside and abroad, Melania has largely bucked tradition. She’s also proven herself a fashion influencer, much like Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton, and Meghan Markle have. The white dress she wore to the Republican National Convention in 2016 sold out, just as the $60 gingham shirt she wore at the White House last August did. It was one of the rare pieces she’s worn that the middle class could actually afford. Contrast that to what Melania wore when she first moved into the White House: an ensemble that totaled a staggering $14,270.
Melania is certainly not the only first lady to spark backlash for her wardrobe. Even 19th-century first ladies, like Mary Todd Lincoln, faced similar criticism over the cost of their clothes. Michelle Obama upset some for not covering her head during a trip to Saudi Arabia and for not wearing a traditional sari while visiting India; she also famously drew criticism for wearing outfits that showed her arms.
Still, Melania’s clothes stand out for their ability to fuel conspiracy theories. Members of the public have often accused her of trying to send a message with her outfits, as with the aforementioned pussy-bow blouse or her State of the Union look.
The first lady clearly has a fondness for white. She’s worn the color multiple times. But when she sported a white suit at the State of the Union Address in January after allegations surfaced that her husband had an affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels, she was likened to Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election also had a fondness for white pantsuits. Did the color have any deeper significance for Melania? Was she sending a message to her husband or about him by wearing white, some onlookers wondered? Did it signal she believed he was innocent?
Likely not. Her stylist Herve Pierre told WWD that her style is “not that complicated.” Quoting designer Carolina Herrera, he said, “‘Fashion is to please your eye.’ If you start to intellectualize everything, it’s hard.”
In fact, Melania wore all white again on Tuesday while greeting Macron and his wife Brigitte. Her wide-brimmed white hat drew comparisons to a similar hat Beyoncé wore in her “Formation” video. Beyoncé’s headwear was black, and people eager to link the first lady’s taste in millinery to a quest for liberation à la Lemonade are probably mistaken. It’s clear by now that Melania dresses first and foremost to please herself. If that means stilettos in a storm or sparkly gowns with lots of embellishments in the age of minimalist fashion, so be it.
Melania is a first lady destined to be remembered for her love of fashion, much like Mary Todd Lincoln, Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Michelle Obama before her. But her fashion choices haven’t functioned to win her friends, influence, or even to prove herself. As first lady in an administration plagued by scandal, turnover, and public distrust, Melania Trump’s clothes offer stability — for her.