She has a poker face and model’s poise, but rarely speaks publicly. So what’s really going on in the First Lady’s mind? Tanya Gold examines her most memorable outfits for clues.
She speaks six languages yet Melania Trump is one of the most silent First Ladies in history. The 49-year-old Slovenian former model, who married the then real estate mogul Donald Trump in 2005, is regularly described as ‘enigmatic’ or a ‘mystery’. As a billionaire’s wife, her quietness was unremarkable. As FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) it has assumed a power of its own. People project on to Melania’s silences – particularly her husband’s enemies, who call her his hostage, claim that she’s been replaced by a body double, that she hates him and longs to escape her gilded cage. But then divining Melania has become an international sport. So who is she – really?
She is no Michelle Obama, campaigning alongside her husband, emitting charisma like light. In a rare television interview last year, Melania admitted about her new role: ‘You are always under the microscope and I cannot freely move any more.’ It hurts her that ‘people say that I’m not happy in the White House, [that] I don’t even live there, I’m miserable in my marriage, I’m out of touch’. She adds, ‘I could say I’m the most bullied person in the world.’
It’s the most she has said about her position publicly, so we must turn to her nonverbal cues (her clothes, expressions and choice of photo ops) for insight. As the US-based fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen, founder of the Fashion Psychology Institute, says, ‘Her inability to vocalise leads us to look at her dress. It is a way into her internal life.’
Melania’s lack of expression, for instance, is not an accident, but something she was trained for as a model. Dawnn Karen says: ‘You’re told not to show any emotion on your face, to let the clothing speak for you’. When Trump turned to politics and announced his candidacy for president in 2015, Melania’s unreadable expression became fixed. She seemed fearful in those early days – of the hatred he incited, which bounced off her; and of making a mistake on the largest catwalk in history. Melania’s everyday costume, Dawnn Karen says, is ‘an armour and a shield’. She loves dark glasses – for privacy, obviously – and the capes and spiked heels of a fashion-themed superhero. ‘They signify her desire to be as powerful as her partner – and invincible,’ she adds.
‘Melania came into this role as the wife of a very wealthy man and she has carried on doing what she did, wearing high-end luxury clothing,’ says brand consultant Isabel Spearman, who has worked with Samantha Cameron. ‘I would love to dress her down a bit. It would make people relate to her more.’
The colour psychology specialist Karen Haller, author of The Little Book of Colour, believes that Melania dislikes the limelight. This was not what she wanted or expected. Her evidence is Melania’s favourite colours, the ones she most often wears: grey, black and white. ‘Grey is a colour that recedes,’ she says. In grey, ‘it’s almost like she doesn’t want to be seen’. Black, in this instance, is ‘self-protecting’. White, finally, ‘creates space. If there is a lot of noise and emotion, people often wear white to try to clear it.’
According to body language expert Judi James, author of The Body Language Bible, her gestures are hard to read. Melania is ‘fascinating for her lack of body-language cues, particularly when she is married to one of the biggest body-language leakers in history,’ she says, referring to what happens when someone verbalises one thing, but their body indicates something else.
James can read Trump from his gestures: petulant, narcissistic, infantile and throwing out ‘alpha power signals. The power handshake, the shake and yank to destabilise people.’ Melania, though, is not an open book. She doesn’t ‘leak’.
She does not show anger or affection where body-language specialists look for it – around the eyes. Her facial expressions, says James, are ‘negligible. Her signature masked facial expression is a partial smile. It’s a poker face.’
Yet her body language does give clues. She usually stands like a soldier ready for battle: ‘shoulders splayed, very upright, arms to the side, face into the camera,’ says James. ‘She is stronger than we would imagine. Even potentially dominant.’ There were two particular occasions, she says, when Melania showed her real self. The first was when ‘she flicked [Trump’s] hand away’ as they arrived in Israel in 2017. ‘It was a very powerful statement. It was dismissive. It was an order.’ The second time showed affection for her husband. In March 2018, she tripped as they walked across a White House lawn, and ‘his arm flew out and grabbed her by the waist. He kept his arm there and she seemed comfortable. It was spontaneous affection.’
So it may be that, despite the myth-making and the projection, this 14-year marriage is fairly normal in its way. Sometimes she feels irritation, even fury, towards the husband who took her from humble origins (her father was a travelling car salesman in the former Yugoslavia) to a billionaire’s penthouse, and then to the White House. And sometimes she feels love. Sometimes she supports him, and sometimes she wishes she was alone.
Will individual outfits and key moments tell us more about Melania? As she prepares to join Donald on his first state visit to Britain tomorrow, we take a closer look…
The inauguration dress
Costume has huge meaning in Trump’s White House. How could it not, when Melania was a model and Trump’s utterances are often gnomic and confusing? This look, worn on inauguration day in 2017, showed commitment to the lustre of the office and her husband as he was sworn in as 45th President of the United States. The high neckline, the elbow-length gloves, the baby blue all spoke submission, and, I think, Trump’s supporters – who voted to keep Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office – appreciated its hyper-femininity. Fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen says that wives of billionaires often wear pastels, so the world is not presented with a wall of power. It also invoked Jacqueline Kennedy, the most stylish First Lady until Melania. When asked in 1999 what kind of First Lady she would be if Trump married her and became President she said: ‘I would be very traditional like Jackie Kennedy. I would support him… I stand by my man.’ And she did, in Ralph Lauren.
The pussy-bow blouse
Sometimes a $1,100 (£864) pink pussy-bow blouse is not just a $1,100 pussy-bow blouse. In 2016 Melania wore a silk fuchsia Gucci number to the second presidential debate just days after a 2005 recording emerged of her husband telling a TV presenter: ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p****. You can do anything.’ This was an important moment in the insane dance between the Trump family and the US media. It showed that Melania can ignite a news story and play mind games when it pleases her to do so. One columnist said: ‘Has she also got somewhat of a devilish sense of humour? Mocking her husband, mocking his detractors, the silent smiling wife and potential First Lady… Is there more going on beneath that blow-dry than perhaps we’d so far given her credit for?’ It would come to be typical of Melania’s covert messages: it drove the media into a frenzy and made Trump supporters – many of whom hate feminism – laugh. It took the sting out of her husband’s awful comments, and helped the campaign survive.
The ‘I really don’t care, do you?’ jacket
After it was revealed that immigrant children were being separated from their parents in Trump’s America, Melania wore this now infamous coat on her way to visit some of them in the New Hope Children’s Shelter in Texas in June 2018. It is a rare example of her wearing street clothing – it cost $39 (£30) from Zara – and said, ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ Melania later said she was ‘blindsided’ by this vicious policy and told her husband so. Her visit to the centre could be taken as sympathy for the children, an expression of regret. But the jacket was a sting in the tail – a message to immigrant-loathing Trump supporters that they were not forgotten, and a swipe at the media. ‘It was for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticising me,’ she later said. ‘You could criticise, whatever you want to say. But it will not stop me to do what I feel is right.’ It had another impact: attention. Trump proved in the campaign that there is no such thing as bad publicity and that his base is unshockable. Without the rolling coverage of outrage, he would never have become President. In the era of Trump, you dominate the news agenda, or you die.
The suffragette suit
Melania wore a white Dior suit to her husband’s first State of the Union address in January 2018. It had just been alleged that Trump had slept with porn star Stormy Daniels shortly after Melania’s only child Barron was born in 2006. White is the colour of female emancipation and was worn by the suffragettes. The trouser suit is the uniform of Trump’s felled opponent Hillary Clinton. But, confusingly, progressive women were wearing black that night, in solidarity with the Times Up and #MeToo campaigns. So this is one of the trickiest of Melania’s style messages to divine. She could be saying: ‘I am with you, sisters, and I am keeping him in line.’ She could be saying: ‘I wear the crown now.’ Or she could be saying: ‘He is in the gutter, but I am beyond reproach, like Caesar’s wife.’
The white ballgown
On her first evening as First Lady she wore a vanilla silk, off-the-shoulder couture gown by Hervé Pierre, who formerly worked at Carolina Herrera. Pierre, her fashion advisor, says Melania always chooses her own clothes. ‘Who, as a free woman, is going to be told what to wear?’ he once said. This gown showed her most enduring self: the former model married to a billionaire. It is sheer trophy wife (she literally looks like a trophy). No colour expresses status like white, for who but Melania and her kind can afford to keep it free of gravy and the detritus of real life? It suggests she knows of her importance. She donated it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 2017 and said she hoped it would be ‘one of many great beginnings to our family’s history here in Washington DC’.
Many words have been spent interpreting Melania’s Twitter and Instagram feed. In her previous life she loved to post photographs from the penthouse of Trump Tower, where she lived in New York City, and from inside cars and private aeroplanes on her way to Trump’s winter palace, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. Critics say this shows her world is small, and that she longs to escape it. I wonder if, rather, she can’t move that far or that fast in those Christian Louboutin heels, and that she is not terribly curious about the world outside her own. One kind of photograph is very telling, though: her favourite compositions show the Trumps from the back, and far away, as if they are leaving us behind. Does that fantasy make her happy?
The £40,000 jacket
Melania’s signature ‘Be Best’ initiative to combat opioid addiction and promote online safety and wellness in children has been mocked by critics as meaningless considering her husband’s policies and reputation as a Twitter bully. The British political commentator Ayesha Hazarika says: ‘She gained access into this magic circle of privilege because of her appearance. She is not really an authentic voice for Be Best. What is her message? How can she inspire young women across America to better themselves other than in their physical appearance? Because that is what she is: a very beautiful model.’ It’s impossible to dispute here. Melania wears a $51,500 (£40,400) ‘3D flower’ Dolce & Gabbana jacket during a trip to the G7 summit in Sicily. Trump always appealed to his supporters with the promise of his wealth. Follow me, he says, and you may have what I have: Melania. She was a billionaire’s wife before she became a President’s wife, and whatever happens in the 2020 election – I think he will win again – a billionaire’s wife she will stay.
The pith helmet
This is Melania’s worst fashion gaffe. She wore it during her first solo tour abroad in 2018, where she visited an orphanage in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi and a site where ivory is burned to discourage poaching. She was described as looking like a villain from the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, for the way it evoked the European colonisation of Africa, she was accused of insensitivity and worse. Perhaps this solo tour made Melania nervous, for she hid too much in her beloved safe place – high fashion. It looked like a Vogue editorial, and a photograph of Melania in full Agatha Christie chic at the pyramids was, if anything, even more absurd. She looked, for once, ridiculous. Did Trump supporters care? I doubt it.
The fairytale frock
This flowing yellow silk gown by J Mendel is a childlike choice for a First Lady usually dressed for battle in heels, shades and coats worn on her shoulders like capes. The night this photo was taken, in July 2018 during the Trumps’ visit to the UK, the American Ambassador’s residence in London was surrounded by protesters and the next day the Baby Trump balloon floated above Parliament Square. Here Melania, who was at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire to dine with Theresa May, dropped her steely guard. She was in England, after all, the land of kings and ladies fair.