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OPINION: By Lisa Armstrong
Melania Trump, the now former First Lady, has made her final appearance at the White House rather as she began – icily perfect in a fitted suit, elbow length gloves, shiny crocodile bag and enormous back-off sunglasses.
Then she wore blue Ralph Lauren, in what many took as a nod to Jackie Kennedy’s inauguration outfit. Now she is in black – a fashion standard but also perhaps, a gleeful reminder to herself that as former First Lady she no longer has to worry about wearing bright colours. Or about wearing American designers, with whom she has had such a testy, or non-existent relationship during her time as First Lady: today she wore a Chanel jacket, a dress from Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Louboutin shoes.
Not that she looks joyful. If anything, she looks even more glum that she did at the inauguration.
But that’s the thing about Melania – no one ever knows quite what’s going on in her head.
No one can even agree on her appearance. To her fans she is elegance incarnate. If spiky angles, dagger-sharp tailoring and an almost Cruella De Vil-like composure that borders on imperiousness are your thing, Melania Trump is (unlike her husband) unimpeachable. To her many detractors, she is White House Barbie with little to no regard for whether she comes across as likeable.
That said, while she may have made some kind of deal with herself at the start of her husband’s presidency, to say as little as possible, she soon learned every trick in the silent movie star’s handbook about emoting. This lead to criticism that she was gauchely literal in some of her outfit choices, notably the Out of Africa ensemble she wore on a trip to, yes Africa.
No doubt she will also be accused of dressing for a funeral on the final day of her husband’s presidency. She probably won’t care. Because hey, look, the minute the Trumps’ plane landed in their beloved Florida, she stepped out in a sunny Gucci kaftan. Talk about intention signalling.
From the outset – the one-shouldered cream Ralph Lauren jumpsuit she wore to her husband’s victory rally in 2016 – to the final moments as First Lady, Melania Trump has never been less than glacially impeccable. She is also arguably, because she said so little and given almost nothing away, one of the most intriguing First Ladies in US history. She is certainly the most divisive.
Just as the Trump administration managed to turn mask wearing into a bitterly contested political gesture, Melania, not without her own contrivance, made her particular brand of status dressing political. It’s very hard to imagine any female Democrat representative dressing with the same disregard for budget or practicality. In some ways, this is almost admirable – at least she never pretended to be something she clearly is not, such as an average soccer mom. But it also suggests a profound lack of empathy.
Initially it was her inscrutability that gave the millions of Americans who were horrified by Donald Trump’s win, some succour. Only partially tongue in cheek they asked, via placards and T-shirts , whether it might be that Melania was as much a victim as they felt – a surrendered wife who needed rescuing . Blink twice if you need help became one of the earliest Melania memes of the Trump reign.
Those moments when Mrs T batted away the President’s hand, or seemed to ignore him became like specks of gold dust. Alas for Trump’s detractors, on the rare occasions that Melania stepped up vocally, it was to praise her husband and, in an observation that surely went beyond contractual loyalty, explain that her husband reminded her of her beloved father, a self-made car dealer from Slovenia, whom she said he resembled in drive, character and politics.
If Melania lacked warmth, she certainly can’t be accused of shirking the sartorial responsibilities of her role, even if most American designers made their repugnance of her husband – and by association her – bitingly clear.
While Trump, with his usual thin-skinned menace lashed out at designers who refused to dress her, Melania’s response was a let-them-eat-cake doubling down on her clothes expenditure, perhaps most flagrantly illustrated when she wore a $51,000 Dolce & Gabbana couture jacket in Sicily. If her critics thought Trump’s blue collar fan base would be outraged, they were mistaken. For them, as for the Trumps, their glamorous First Lady represented just one more facet of the American Dream.
As for all those designers who’d spurned her – she didn’t need their discounts, freebies or loans. A big part of her husband’s image was built on extravagance because in Trump world, consumption equalled success. Ergo his wife’s trophy wardrobe was most symbolic of his presidency when it was at its most extravagant.
Unlike her predecessor Michelle Obama, or those poor European Royals, the Duchess of Cambridge and Queen Letizia of Spain, Melania Trump rarely felt the need to relate to the public by wearing high street clothes. Will she now donate some of them to The Smithsonian in Washington or The Costume Institute in New York? They’d represent quite a cache of First Lady style. And would those institutions, particularly The Costume Institute, now better known as The Anna Wintour Costume Center in honour of one of its biggest fundraisers (and vaunted Democrat), even accept them?
On one of the few occasions Melania went low, budget wise – donning a Zara parka with the infamous slogan “I really don’t care, do you” to visit migrant children who had been separated from their parents – it was almost as if she were going out of her way to provoke. The predictable outrage resulted firstly with a statement from the First Lady that she had not intended to relay any message with the coat, and then a backtrack. What she meant to say, she later explained, was that she didn’t care about media criticism.
The problem is, she did, according to a kiss-and-tell book last year by a former close friend, Stephanie Wolkoff, (complete with snatched recordings of the First Lady using expletives).Wolkoff claimed Melania was both frustrated and hurt that Vogue, so warm towards her predecessor (the magazine had featured Michelle Obama three times on their cover) had consistently snubbed her during her tenure as First Lady. Wolkoff’s claims were dismissed by the White House.
In some ways, Melania Trump was a fashion writer’s dream: not only because she rarely wore the same outfit twice, but because she invested so much thought into what she wore. Her outfits were a manifestation of what was going on internally. Most of the time that seemed to be little more than a glossy, controlled, highly-disciplined caricature of First Lady elegance.
But occasionally, chaos – in the shape of a parka – broke through, suggesting that like her husband, Melania lacks a sense of graciousness. She may leave the White House with the lowest approval ratings of any First Lady on record, not helped by reports that she didn’t bother to write her own thank you letters to loyal White House staff – a custom faithfully adhered to by her predecessors.
But for as long as she keeps her own counsel and uses only her clothes to communicate, her outfits will continue to intrigue.
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