In the end the most viral moment of Melania Trump’s five-day, four-country solo trip, which came to a close Sunday when she stepped off the plane at Joint Base Andrews, had to do with clothes, as it so often does.
To be specific: her irritation with everyone’s interest in her attire. It happened after she had met other first ladies and heads of state in Kenya, Malawi, Ghana and Egypt, after she had toured hospitals and cuddled babies and pet elephants, after she had done what she could to offer a new, friendlier face of the Trump administration not just to the African world but to everyone else. It happened during an impromptu news conference at the foot of the pyramids.
“I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear,” Mrs. Trump said. Within minutes, her remark was all over social media, along with a picture of her wearing a sand-colored Ralph Lauren jacket, a white Chanel shirt with a black tie, and a cream fedora. She looked like a character straight from “Out of Africa” crossed with Belloq, the nefarious Frenchman from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
It’s a familiar plaint, one often issued by Hillary Clinton. It was almost surprising that Mrs. Trump didn’t follow it up with the usual corollary: If I were a (first) man, you wouldn’t care about my clothes.
But the fact is, chafe against it as she will, what she does is inextricably bound up in what she chooses to wear while doing it, and the same would be true of anyone in that role. After all, that’s what you see in the pictures, and the pictures are what most people see first. The clothes are simply a symbol of the actions, and the actor. Is it superficial? No more than paying attention to any kind of symbolism is.
Besides, it’s clear that Mrs. Trump understands this and dressed this time around, at least to a certain extent, to make a point: to offer a different image to that of her pugnacious husband. If her wardrobe also seemed like a costume donned for a specific public performance, perhaps it is to be expected. This is someone who is a reluctant star in the continuing drama that is this White House, and this is increasingly her approach to the role. If she sometimes gets the props wrong … well, oops.
So in Africa, instead of a trussed up and guarded trophy wife, resplendent in Louboutins and couture labels, as has been Mrs. Trump’s style in Washington, we got flat shoes and safari jackets; desert tones and contemporary price points; Princess Diana crossed with Hollywood.
None of that Marie Antoinette-playing-shepherdess donning of the $1,380 Balmain flannel shirt to garden. The first lady even shopped her closet, wearing pants (Polo Ralph Lauren) and jackets (specifically a Veronica Beard style), we’d seen before. Her mien, as social media kept pointing out before it got distracted by her hats, was relaxed and cheerful.
The biggest controversy had to do with the silly headgear: the pith helmet on safari in Kenya, which had people crying “Colonialism” and “Ignorance,” and the fedora. (And let’s face it, Prince Charles has had the same problem.) Though truthfully, what they revealed was more a lack of in-depth research into the signifiers than any purposeful intent.
Before that, everyone was too entranced by the $50 Zara fake lizard loafers to focus on the somewhat wince-worthy implications of choosing to depart for Africa in a suede Vince coat and leopard heels, to wear a tan Joseph safari dress to arrive in Malawi, and a shirtdress printed with emus and rhinos to leave Kenya.
Indeed, the Twitterati, quick to attack, were instead won over.
The factions of Trump-watchers who see the first lady’s wardrobe as something of a litmus test of her relationship with her husband — those who saw coded messages in the pussy-bow blouse, the white trouser suit at the State of the Union — will probably see the Africa trip wardrobe as yet another declaration of independence: Look what she’s like when she’s alone!
But in truth this seems simply another disguise. All clothes are costumes we assume to play ourselves, but Mrs. Trump’s often seem like costumes donned to obscure herself. It’s hard to get a fix on her, because the characters she is playing seem to mutate with the occasion.
It began at the inauguration, with the powder blue Jackie Kennedy suit and gloves, continued through her first Easter egg roll in pink garden-party frock, her husband’s first international tour (remember the Sicilian black lace widow-wear to meet the pope?) and has perhaps reached its fullest realization on this trip.
First ladies in the past have used clothes to represent different aspects of themselves to complement the executive branch: Rosalynn Carter to symbolize her thriftiness; Barbara Bush to reflect her grandmotherly accessibility; Nancy Reagan to underscore her belief in the power of glamour to revive national pride; Michelle Obama, to suggest inclusivity and a new era. But Mrs. Trump’s clothes most often seem to hide who she is rather than elucidate.
That’s partly why so much attention is paid and interpretations allotted, and why the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” Zara jacket was such a shock: It seemed like a rare glimpse behind the perfectly blow-dried curtain to the human frustration beneath. For once, it didn’t seem stage-managed. (Because, honestly, who would suggest that?)
If the first lady really wants people to focus on what she does instead of what she wears, she can do what Hillary Clinton did in her time as a candidate and adopt a uniform to effectively bore people into silence. Or she can accept that people see what she wears as an extension of who she is — relaxed or rational or cheerful or global — and embrace that. The part people are waiting for her to play is herself.