Let's just get this out of the way: Yes, we are allowed to talk about the First Lady's fashion.
Before Melania Trump was making waves for her sartorial choices, First Ladies before her—from liberal beacons like Jacqueline Kennedy to conservative icons like Nancy Reagan—stood as cultural fashion emblems of their time. They gave us tasteful pantsuits and oversize sunglasses; sleeveless tops and pillbox hats. Their style, whether they liked it or not, was considered an embodiment of the administration's values, and an aspiration to many American women. And many worked that influence to their advantage.
As modern First Ladies surely know, the prominence of this position means that clothes they wear will be chronicled by the press. Michelle Obama used this power to champion up-and-coming designers and showcase high-low dressing; J.Crew was a favorite.
Phew—now that we've covered that, we can move on to our current First Lady, Melania Trump. Unlike the First Ladies before her, Melania came fully equipped to tackle her new, very public role—at least, on the fashion front. As a former model, not to mention a member of a family that prides itself on image, Melania is accustomed to using her clothing to make a statement. As a person who once put on outfits for a living, she should know better than anyone how powerful clothes can be.
Which brings me to my theory: Melania Trump purposefully wears outrageous or provocative fashions in order to distract the public from the issues at hand. She diverts the attention from, say, her husband's immigration policy—which earned bipartisan condemnation—with a statement parka, and then plays the victim when media (or anyone with eyeballs, for that matter) speculates about what it could all mean. "It's just a jacket," her communications director will say, feeding the argument for conservative pundits, who will then turn around and lament the media talking about something as trivial as clothes when there's so much else going on.
I know, I know, this argument sounds a bit conspiratorial. But the seed for this theory was planted back in September of 2017, when Melania stepped out in a larger-than-life neon pink Delpozo coat dress. The look was about as subtle as a Lisa Frank museum. I was immediately reminded an episode of the Bold Type, when Jane, a young reporter at a Cosmo-esque women's publication, noticed that a female politician would wear outrageous, ugly outfits whenever she was making a move she knew would be controversial. The tabloid media, being the tabloid media, would latch on to the "hideous" aspects of the look, and she would come across as the hero when she called them out for "sexist" reporting. Meanwhile, no one could remember what, exactly, she was doing when wearing said ugly outfit.
The argument may sound like the type that could exist on a Freeform dramedy, but hear me out as I present the following examples for consideration.
The stiletto incident: August 2017
The outfit: An olive green bomber jacket, black pants, and Manolo Blahnik stilettos.
The event: The Trumps were photographed boarding a plane from Washington D.C. en route to Houston, where they were to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
The critical reaction: Though she changed into sneakers by the time her plane touched down in Texas, the First Lady was ridiculed on Twitter for her "tone-deaf" decision to wear stilettos while the very people she was going to visit had lost all of their worldly possessions in one of the worst natural disasters of the year.
The White House Message: FLOTUS's communications director Stephanie Grisham issued the following statement: "It's sad that we have an active and ongoing natural disaster in Texas, and people are worried about her shoes."
What her outfit distracted from: That Trump was widely criticized for his response to the hurricanes of the 2017 season, specifically his response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
So, did it work? Melania walked away from the stiletto controversy ultimately looking like the victim of an overblown cyberbully attack, especially considering she changed into sneakers and a baseball cap when her plane landed in Texas. Many came to her defense, including the liberal leaning host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah.
Of the four events, this appears to be the only unintentional "stunt." Though it showed her team just how effective her ensembles could be at swaying the public conversation.
That hot pink Delpozo coat: September 2017
The outfit: A hot pink couture Delpozo coat with voluminous sleeves, paired with matching hot pink stilettos.
The event: Melania attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where she addressed an audience made up of spouses of other world leaders on the dangers of cyberbullying, one of the causes she's taken up as First Lady.
The critical reaction: On Twitter, everyone had an opinion on her hard-to-miss outfit, which was as bright as it was unconventional (and delightfully high fashion, to us Delpozo fans). Only a handful of mean-spirited Twitter users were rude about her outfit, with some comparing her look to Violet from Willy Wonka.
The Fox News message: Melania Trump was bullied online by amateur fashion critics while she was trying to dissuade cyberbullying!
What her outfit distracted from: It's hard to imagine that Melania and her team would not be aware of the optics of her anti-cyberbullying speech given the Twitter habits of her husband.
So, did it work?: There’s not many things that the right and the left agree on, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a conservative (or any human, really) willing to say that the President has a civil social media disposition. Given the Fox News headline, "Melania Trump Bullied Over Pink Dress," as well as their omission of any mention of the irony of her message from their story, we'd say it worked.
The White hat: April 2017
The outfit: A Michael Kors belted skirt suit with a matching, wide-brim hat custom made by her stylist, Herve Pierre.
The event: The Trumps welcomed French Prime Minister, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife, Brigitte Macron, to the White House ahead of the State Dinner.
The critical reaction: There wasn’t a definitive positive or negative response to the First Lady’s over-the-top hat, but one thing’s for sure—everyone was talking about it. Fan speculation ran the gamut: She’s paying homage to Olivia Pope! No, she's channeling Beyoncé! Among fashion fans, the look was (quietly) applauded.
The White House message: Nothing much.
What her outfit distracted from: The meeting came at the height of the Stormy Daniels scandal, just days before Rudy Giuliani, who joined the President’s legal counsel earlier this year, revealed to Sean Hannity that Trump repaid his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for the hush money he paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels—meaning, the president must have been aware of the payment.
So, did it work?: According to a body language expert, Melania Trump was not a happy camper at this point in time (we don’t blame her). A giant hat may have distracted from her sour facial expressions and obvious coldness to her husband. Unfortunately for her, the wide-brim topper didn’t cover up the obvious snub to the President when she brushed his hand away as he tried to hold it for the cameras.
The “I don’t really care, do u?” coat: June 2018
The outfit: A $39 olive green Zara parka with the words, “I don’t really care, do u?” scrawled across the back in white.
The event: Melania was photographed boarding a plane at the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland en route to an immigrant children’s detention center in McAllen, Texas.
The critical reaction: Twitter erupted into a chorus of "Oh no she didn't!"'s within a matter of minutes. Given her destination, many believed the First Lady's jacket was in reference to the children who had been separated as a result of her husband's zero-tolerance immigration policy—especially because one of the biggest criticisms against the president and his comrades was that they didn't care about the kids.
A small minority of tweeters came to her defense, assuming the "I don't really care, do u?" was in reference to those who attacked her for a tweet about wanting to help "the children" while thousands of children were being separated from their parents.
The White House message: "It's just a jacket," Melania's communications director said in a tweet. Trump echoed the sentiment, noting that the "I don't really care" message was aimed at the "Fake News Media."
What her outfit distracted from: The fact that it was her husband’s zero-tolerance policy that landed them in the situation where Melania needed to go on a PR trip to the border in the first place.
So, did it work?: This time, not really. Although Melania's approval rating had a brief spike (according to a CNN poll) earlier this spring, peaking at 57%, it's been on the decline ever since, most recently clocking in at 51% according to numbers from mid-June. The "poor Melania" mentality appears to be fading into the background. The very-staged act of visiting the immigrant children's detention center in Texas to begin with was seen by some as an insincere, face-saving move on behalf of the administration, and Melania looks complicit.
Because the trip itself was a PR stunt (the fact that she invited 13 reporters to come along with her on the trip proved that it was, indeed, a publicity stunt), Melania and co. were very well aware of the fact that she would be photographed in her coat. Unlike the stiletto incident, this move doesn't read as simply an accidental oversight, where Melania might play the victim. As has been pointed out by many critics, she knew exactly what she was doing.