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STYLE

There are no accidents in Melania Trump’s wardrobe choices

For all her sartorial successes, Melania Trump has had just as many fails, the biggest of which came Thursday afternoon: the $39 coat made by the Spanish fast-fashion chain Zara with “I really don’t care, do u?” scrawled on the back.
For all her sartorial successes, Melania Trump has had just as many fails, the biggest of which came Thursday afternoon: the $39 coat made by the Spanish fast-fashion chain Zara with “I really don’t care, do u?” scrawled on the back. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Since her husband took office, Melania Trump’s wardrobe has served as her mood ring. It’s the first lady’s version of Twitter. There have been no accidents or missteps. Fashion is her connection to the world and the statements she makes are, at times, just as bold as those her husband makes on social media.

When Melania wore a soft blue slim-cut dress and jacket to her husband’s inauguration, it was seen as a nod to Jackie Kennedy’s style and an acknowledgment of the dignity required of her new position on the world stage. At an uncertain time, it sent a reassuring message.

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When she dramatically emerged in a white pantsuit at the State of the Union address in January, it was widely interpreted as something of a rebuke. The first lady had mostly been out of public view since the president had been accused of having an affair with Stormy Daniels. Melania’s white ensemble echoed what female Democrats had worn to protest Trump’s first address to Congress. Others saw the pantsuit as a quiet nod to Hillary Clinton, who favored white during her campaign.

This was the first lady tweeting her emotions through her wardrobe.

For all her sartorial successes, Melania has had just as many fails, the biggest of which came Thursday afternoon: the $39 coat made by the Spanish fast-fashion chain Zara with “I really don’t care, do u?” scrawled on the back. She wore it, of course, as she boarded a plane to visit the US-Mexico border where immigrant children have been forcefully separated from their parents.

It was the most callous, pernicious article of clothing Melania has worn in public on perhaps the most important day of her career as first lady. She seemed to be rallying for the children she was about to visit. But any good intentions were hidden by the jacket. Instead of showing compassion, she left an indelible mark as an unsympathetic first lady with a fondness for stilettos and a smoky eye.

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Public outcry over the policy of separating children and holding them in detention centers, along with the gutting images of toddlers crying or huddled under mylar blankets, prompted the president to sign an executive order ending the policy.

Throughout the fracas, the first lady was cast as a sympathetic character. She issued a statement on Sunday that she “hates to see children separated from their families.” A White House official confirmed to NPR that the first lady lobbied her husband to keep undocumented immigrant families together.

All of which makes the green jacket more infuriating.

The president chimed in after the initial uproar, claiming that his wife wore the jacket to taunt the “fake news media.” But given that Mrs. Trump has never shown animosity toward the press the way her husband has, that interpretation feels empty. Others have speculated that the message was intended for her husband. There’s also a chance that it was meant for the families she was visiting.

“It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message,” said her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham.

Grisham was right. There was no hidden message. There are no hidden messages in fashion. Everything we wear is deliberate, even if we’re trying to deliberately show that we don’t care. We wear clothes that we think are professional, flattering, sexy, comfortable, or formal, and we do it with purpose. We advertise bands, brands, sports teams, and political leanings. We dress for funerals, weddings, school, and the beach, and we think about all of it — even the flip-flops.

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That’s why it’s nearly impossible to view Mrs. Trump’s Zara jacket as an afterthought. The first lady is a woman who understands the power of clothes, and unless the jacket was placed on her while blindfolded, she was sending a message. We’ll likely never know what the true message was. All we really know is that the chilly, detached “I really don’t care, do u?” felt like a slap to an already bruised and divided national psyche.

It’s not the first time her clothing choices have been branded insensitive. Last summer she wore cropped pants, a green bomber jacket, and needle-thin heels as she exited the White House for Air Force One for a flight to Houston to view the damage from Hurricane Harvey. Many saw the polished ensemble, particularly the heels, as insensitive to those who were struggling in the cleanup. But by the time she landed in Houston, she had changed into sneakers, a crisp white shirt, and baseball cap.

She faced similar criticism when she traveled to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico with the president in October. She departed in heels, but arrived wearing a pair of spotless boots and white skinny jeans. Fresh white jeans don’t send the message, “I’m here to help,” when you arrive in a country without water or power, they say, “Which way to the nearest Starbucks?”

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These may be just shoes, or just jeans, or just a $39 green jacket, but the first lady is a former model who understands clothes. She’s aware that the world is always watching her on an international, political runway.

So when the President’s wife says “I really don’t care, do u?,” the correct answer is, “Yes, I do care.” As the first lady knows, fashion is not frivolous, It’s not just a jacket, it’s a disturbing, cold question posed to the world at the wrong time, and at the wrong place.


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.