Thursday 20 June 2019

Dressing for diplomacy: Melania Trump is the first lady of fashion

From a striking dress emblazoned with red buses to a Diana-esque ensemble complete with tilted hat, Melania Trump's choice of travelling wardrobe is creating a stir, writes Meadhbh McGrath

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall with US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania at Winfield House, the residence of the Ambassador of the United States of America to the UK, in Regent's Park, London: Chris Jackson/PA Wire
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall with US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania at Winfield House, the residence of the Ambassador of the United States of America to the UK, in Regent's Park, London: Chris Jackson/PA Wire
First Lady Melania Trump walks to meet US President Donald Trump before departing the White House. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Melania outside 10 Downing Street . Photo: AFP/Getty Images
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tour Westminster Abbey as part of their UK state visit. Photo: REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Queen Elizabeth with US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania. Photo: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth II, Melania Trump, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, attended a state banquet at Buckingham Palace (Jeff Gilbert/Daily Telegraph/PA)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (C) meets with US President Donald Trump (R) and US First Lady Melania Trump (L) during a welcome ceremony at Buckingham Palace in central London on June 3, 2019, on the first day of the US president and First Lady's three-day State Visit to the UK. - Britain rolled out the red carpet for US President Donald Trump on June 3 as he arrived in Britain for a state visit already overshadowed by his outspoken remarks on Brexit. (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE / POOL / AFP)TOBY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images
Philip May and U.S. first lady Melania Trump attend a joint news conference at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, in London, Britain June 4, 2019. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS
US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Downing Street. Photo: PA

Meadhbh McGrath

As Melania Trump boarded Air Force One for her first official state visit to the UK, she made her intentions clear: she was going to set a new standard for diplomatic dressing.

The First Lady may have borrowed liberally from her predecessor Michelle Obama in the past, but with her tour wardrobe, she is doing things very definitely her own way.

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During Barack Obama's presidency, Michelle perfected the art of sartorial diplomacy: when the Obamas visited the UK during Barack's two terms in office, Michelle wore buzzy yet lesser-known British brands such as Roksanda Ilincic and Christopher Kane, or for a dinner at Buckingham Palace, she opted for a designer like Tom Ford, an American designer then living in London, to pay tribute to the relationship between the two countries.

This subtle approach has been adopted by many women on the world stage, from Samantha Cameron and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau to Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, as a way to send a visual message of respect to a host country or culture, or to support local talent.

But subtlety has never been the Trumps' trademark. Melania prefers more literal acts of fashion diplomacy: for her solo trip to Egypt, Malawi, Ghana and Kenya last year, she favoured an Out of Africa style - recall the cream suit with fedora reminiscent of Rene Belloq, the white shirt and slacks topped off with colonial pith helmet, or the safari dress printed with rhinos.

And on the Trumps' visit to Beijing in 2017, she opted for a Gucci gown inspired by the traditional Chinese cheongsam. The luxury Italian label's rather eccentric interpretation of the timeless silhouette, complete with baby pink mink cuffs, came off more costume than coded with meaning.

Melania at Stansted Airport. Photo: Reuters
Melania at Stansted Airport. Photo: Reuters

It was Gucci that Melania turned to again for her first outfit of her UK tour this week: a shirtdress printed with images of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and London's red double-decker buses.

It called to mind Leo Varadkar's novelty socks emblazoned with Mounties and maple leaves on his visit to Canada in 2017, only Melania's dress was considerably flashier, retailing for just under €3,000. It certainly made a statement - and that statement was, "I'm going to London, England, baby!"

She touched down in the UK on Monday in another ensemble loaded with symbolism: a silk pussy-blow blouse by the British fashion house Burberry, worn with a navy blue skirt suit by the all-American designer Michael Kors. While the choice of designers signalled a "special relationship", the choice of clothes was less successful in its messaging.

Some critics likened the outfit to a cabin crew uniform, while others noted that Melania's blouse featured a military-style archive print, including three medals on the left breast - a nod to this week's anniversary of the D-Day landings, or was the First Lady indicating that she and her husband are ready for battle? Donald Trump's irate tweets to London mayor Sadiq Khan during the flight seemed to suggest as much.

Not long after, the pair were back up in the air on the Marine Force One helicopter, on which they travelled to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. They were greeted by Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, and Melania took the opportunity to offer some inopportune Princess Diana cosplay, in a white Dolce & Gabbana dress with navy Peter Pan collar and belt, along with a sharply tilted boater hat by Herve Pierre.

Melania's look instantly drew comparisons to Diana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the white outfits and broad-brimmed hats she often wore to the Ascot races.

Melania's ensemble again had the look of a costume: if not Diana, then Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, or perhaps Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty.

It was further evidence of Melania's penchant for dressing as though for the Hollywood version of whatever event she is attending. Remember her cornflower blue inauguration look, in which she took very literal cues from Jackie Kennedy? The First Lady memorably told journalists during her Africa tour, "I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear," yet she continually dresses in a way that is designed to draw attention to what she wears.

US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Downing Street. Photo: PA
US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Downing Street. Photo: PA

She appears a reluctant player in the soap opera of her husband's presidency, and her solution is to pull on her costume, make up her face and play her part.

She looked a little more comfortable at the Queen's state banquet in Buckingham Palace on Monday night.

Like the Queen, Kate and Camilla, Melania dressed all in white - this time, a floor-length gown with a flame-shaped neckline over a mesh panel, adapted from a piece in Dior's spring couture collection. The original was a little roomier, with a full skirt, whereas Melania's was a typically form-fitting column.

The First Lady's choice of a French fashion house may not be the most diplomatic choice, yet Dior is a brand with deep royal connections: Princess Margaret was a lifelong fan, famously wearing a Dior gown for her 21st birthday, while more recently, Meghan Markle has turned to Dior for special occasions such as her official visit to Morocco and a commemorative service for the Royal Air Force at Westminster Abbey.

For her visit to 10 Downing Street yesterday, Melania opted for another unmistakably British piece: the classic beige trench coat, fashioned into a dress and finished with her signature stilettos and Hermes Birkin bag. If there was any doubt about her vaudevillian strategy, this dispelled it.

As Melania arrives in Ireland this afternoon, all eyes will be on Flotus' wardrobe. We can likely rule out any pieces from Irish designers such as Simone Rocha or Louise Kennedy, but given Melania's fondness for hats and cinematic styling, perhaps she'll turn to her favourite European labels to create an homage to Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man, or a flamboyant tribute to Molly Bloom.

More likely, she'll take the simpler route, borrowing wholesale from Grace Kelly's shamrock-green ensemble for her visit to Ireland in 1961 - or, come to think of, does that Gucci dress come in Spire print?

Queen Elizabeth with US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania. Photo: REUTERS
Queen Elizabeth with US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania. Photo: REUTERS

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