Monday 10 December 2018

Dressing the part: One year of Melania

Are there any style lessons to be learned from Mrs Trump's most memorable looks, writes Meadhbh McGrath

It doesn't come cheap: The $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana coat covered in silk flowers Melania wore to the G7 summit in Sicily cost more than the annual average US household’s income
It doesn't come cheap: The $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana coat covered in silk flowers Melania wore to the G7 summit in Sicily cost more than the annual average US household’s income

Meadhbh McGrath

On the road to the White House, Donald Trump's campaign managed to tap into a potent well of nostalgia. Large swathes of the country yearned for a better, former time, when America was 'great', when men were men and women were… just like Melania.

For many, the First Lady represents a paragon of femininity: a polished blend of nipped-in waists, figure-skimming silhouettes and high-glamour hair and make-up. Seen but rarely heard, Melania embodies this idealised, illusory version of womanhood.

From Jacqueline Kennedy to Nancy Reagan to Michelle Obama, the First Lady's wardrobe has always been politicised, and it is understood that fashion has a role to play in forging an identity for an administration. With such a dogged emphasis on visual perfection, Melania's sense of style is about as far a departure from her predecessor as possible, and something ordinary women find near-impossible to relate to - there's scant trace of a real woman under that glossy surface.

After a year of First Lady fashion, what have we learned from Melania's throwback femininity? Are there any style lessons to be taken from Mrs Trump? We count down her five most memorable looks.

Melania Trump channelling Jackie Kennedy in inauguration blue. Photo: Getty Images
Melania Trump channelling Jackie Kennedy in inauguration blue. Photo: Getty Images

The Inauguration

Ahead of Trump's inauguration, fashion fans were curious about what Melania would wear for her moment in the spotlight. A number of high-profile designers including Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Zac Posen publicly refused to dress Mrs Trump, so her outfit on the day was highly-anticipated. And in the end, she tried too hard, with a faintly ridiculous Jackie O costume designed by Ralph Lauren. The cornflower blue skirt suit was cringingly overwrought, although it was one of the few American-designed outfits she has worn. Most of Melania's clothes are bought off-the-rack, anonymously, from department stores and high-end boutiques, with neither store nor designer having any knowledge about who will be wearing them. The off-white Roksanda Ilincic dress she wore at the Republican National Convention sold out within 24 hours - much to the designer's alleged dismay.

Coats of Armour

Melania is rarely without a statement coat. Whether it's a belted Delpozo with oversized sleeves in Seoul or Stella McCartney's heavy floral brocade to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey, voluminous coats are her armour. Often worn draped over her shoulders (or 'shoulder-robing', in Vogue's parlance), Melania tends to use outerwear to reinforce how untouchable she is to mere mortals. Hers is arm's-length glamour that gives off clear 'no touching' signals - particularly an exorbitantly, terrifyingly expensive one like the $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana coat covered in silk flowers she wore to the G7 summit in Sicily.

US First Lady Melania Trump in Dior with Brigitte Macron after a boat trip down the Seine. Photo: Reuters
US First Lady Melania Trump in Dior with Brigitte Macron after a boat trip down the Seine. Photo: Reuters

Fashion critics have also suggested the 'hands-free' styling sends the message that she is a picture-perfect, but not 'hands-on' First Lady. Melania, it is clear, is unconcerned with practicality.

Hurricane Barbie

Melania is fiercely loyal to stiletto heels, preferably Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin. They've even landed her in hot water, when she stepped out in a pair of six-inch pumps before visiting survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. She changed into Stan Smith trainers en route, but the damage had already been done. While it was clear Michelle Obama had a team who were planning and discussing her wardrobe in detail, you wonder whether Melania has anyone who will step in and suggest a quick shoe change before heading to a disaster zone.

She chose former Carolina Herrera design chief Herve Pierre as her fashion adviser, but he is not a stylist. While he can help her choose eye-catching outfits, there is little consideration about how the clothes are interpreted or how they move - remember her neon pink Delpozo dress at the United Nations? With its balloon sleeves, it was a striking piece of design, but transformed into an unflattering blob the moment she stood behind the podium.

Melania’s hurricane heels
Melania’s hurricane heels

Whereas other female political figures take a high-low approach to dressing, mixing designer labels with high street brands like Zara, J Crew and Topshop, Melania seems to have little interest in affordable fashion - the low-priced Converse trainers she wore for a day of digging in the White House vegetable garden, for example, were rather overshadowed by her $1,380 Balmain flannel shirt.

Costuming

Given her husband's 'America First' administration, it would make sense for Melania to champion American designers in her wardrobe. It's something Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton were careful to do, while Theresa May, Kate Middleton and Queen Letizia do likewise for British and Spanish brands.

The Slovenian-born Melania, however, tends to favour established European labels like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Emilio Pucci. Obama earned a reputation for 'diplomatic dressing': paying tribute to countries she was visiting or foreign guests she was hosting by wearing local brands such as Vera Wang at a state dinner for China, Naeem Khan for a meeting with India's Prime Minister, and Christopher Kane on a trip to London.

Melania Trump going native with Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo: AP
Melania Trump going native with Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo: AP

When on an official visit to China, Melania selected a gown that recalled a traditional cheongsam, but was designed by Gucci. When she hosted the Chinese president and his wife at Mar-a-Lago, she wore a red dress by Milan-based Valentino. Neither made-in-America patriotism nor sartorial diplomacy appear to rank high on Melania's fashion agenda.

Cinched Waists

The nipped-in waist has become a Melania hallmark. This was most notable in the 1950s-inspired Dior skirt suit she wore to meet President Macron in Paris. The French design house's legendary 'Bar' jacket, with a belt cinched tight at the waist, was also a rare nod to her host country.

Melania's own style can be hard to pinpoint, but it's certainly old-school, ultra-feminine and rich. She's not trying to pretend to be something she's not: she was the wife of a billionaire, and she'll dress like it, even when she's the wife of the most powerful political figure in the world.

Perhaps it would be wise for her to use her wardrobe as a diplomatic tool like her predecessors, but that's not her style. If reports from Fire and Fury are to be believed, maybe she is miserable as the least likely First Lady, and consoles herself with a lavish dressing-up box.

Her choices may not echo her husband's call to support American businesses, appeal to ordinary women or try to appease foreign nations - but she certainly looks good in the photos.

Sunday Independent

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