Melania Trump: how did her Irish style compare to American first ladies of the past?
Caitlin McBride combs through the archives, analysing fashion of American first ladies visiting Ireland including Nancy Reagan, Hilary Clinton and Laura Bush with Melania Trump
In the big bag world of diplomatic fashion reporting, there are few more defining points than an airport reveal.
When US first lady Melania Trump stepped out of Air Force One, exiting the military grade airplane onto the tarmac of Shannon Airport, she once again overshadowed her husband; no easy feat when he is the leader of the free world - and the most controversial American president in modern history.
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In 2017, I wrote about the obsession of nit-picking every inch of her ensembles, a practice which remains in place largely because her public demeanor is one veiled in mystery: Melania rarely gives speeches, releases statements or acts as more than a supplement to her husband, thus the question is always asked - what does she really think?
Her preference for white, was at first thought to be in support of the women’s suffrage movement and a subtle dig at her husband’s misogynistic speech.
After his ‘grab ‘em by the p***y’ tape leaked in 2016, she wore a pink Gucci pussybow blouse, which many speculated was a silent protest to the audio. But, as it turns out, there is no grand plan of expression through fashion and Melania simply likes wearing white and pussybow blouses.
By now, through her own admissions, it’s become clear that she supports the often divisive decisions made through her husband’s administration and the unspoken wave of support for her has waned in an increasingly polarising political climate in the United States.
With that in mind, from an objective point of view, there's an opportunity to assess her wardrobe in Ireland in comparison to previous first ladies on visits to our shores.
First things first, Melania has undoubtedly impeccable style. It is at times tone deaf, ostentatious and out-of-touch, but they are well put-together ensembles. Are they appropriate for a first lady? It remains to be determined, but the woman knows how to wear an outfit.
As she landed in Ireland on Wednesday, she showcased her first inch of fashion diplomacy by championing an American designer abroad. She wrapped up in the same creme coat by Mary Kate and Ashley’s The Row fashion line she wore earlier in the day in Portsmouth, England, mixing it with nude Manolo Blahnik pumps and a pair of Gucci sunglasses.
Prices for coats by The Row, which was launched in 2006, start at €2,300. As she left, wrapped in a Burberry trench coat, a patterned headscarf and sunglasses, she more reminiscent of a old Hollywood movie star than a modern day style icon.
It was an especially overt display of wealth in comparison to her predecessor Michelle Obama, who visited Ireland on two occasions - one on an official state visit in 2011 and another in which she travelled around Wicklow and Dublin with her daughters Sasha and Malia while former president Barack Obama was at the G8 summit in Co Fermanagh in 2013.
For the Obamas’ one-day visit in 2011, Michelle was dressed for business in a patterned monochrome midi-dress and a black fitted blazer before spending the afternoon with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala.
At her husband’s address at Dublin’s College Green, it was a quick change into a colourful Marc Jacobs midi-dress, one of the United States’ most cherished designers.
After President Trump’s inauguration, Jacobs said he had no interest in working with the new first lady. Obama had a knack for mixing high-low fashion with ease, injecting new life into American retailer J.Crew and Ann Taylor, while also possessing an ability to rock a myriad designer gowns at the White House with aplomb. She was often described as the most stylish first lady since Jackie Kennedy, a title which Melania is putting a valiant effort in taking for herself.
Before her, George W. Bush and his wife Laura also visited here for a brief visit as part of an EU/US Summit at Dromoland Castle in Co Clare.Although it was only 15 years ago, during that time, first lady fashion hadn’t yet grown to become the behemoth it is now; a lot of which can be credited to her successor.
Laura arrived at Shannon Airport in a pale green skirt suit, arguably a more stylish nod to the Irish flag than a potentially unflattering deeper emerald shade. She understood the importance of her outfits, describing them as “costumes” in an interview with D Magazine, a Dallas-based publication.
“People are fascinated with the costumes, with the clothes of the first ladies, and I understand that,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantive issues that every first lady works on as well. Abigail Adams said, ‘Don’t forget the ladies’. when they were writing the Constitution, which I think is interesting.”
Hilary Clinton, who has visited both in her capacity as first lady, Secretary of State and later as an activist, was dressed in appropriate style for a cold day in Dublin 1995, wrapping up in a loose-fitting black trench coat and later changing into an understated black gown for dinner at Dublin Castle.
If we rewind back to 1984, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan arrived for a state visit beginning in Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, Nancy was the epitome of a traditional political wife. It was a visit which sparked similar protests and controversies as the Trumps, with critics objecting to his administration’s foreign policies with developing countries.
Nancy, then 63 years old, wore a silk blouse with a tweed skirt suit posing outside Áras an Uachtaráin with former President Patrick Hillery and wife Maeve, and later displayed an elegant edge in a collarless coat with a white scarf carefully draped over one shoulder.
Then there is, of course, the universally accepted style icon: Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, who visited in both an official and personal capacity in 1967.
She arrived holding her children Caroline and John’s hands at Shannon Airport, in a collarless white jacket, a modest patent heel, wearing her signature white leather gloves and bouffant hairstyle. But she saved the piece de resistance for a state banquet at Dublin Castle, hosted by former Taoiseach Jack Lynch, in an asymmetric gown with elbow length sleeves.
By this time, Jackie had a long-established relationship with Irish fashion designers, in particular Sybil Connolly, essentially put her on the map and as Vogue described, “paved the way for her generation."