Believe it or not, but the wardrobe of the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) is a significant part of history. What Jackie Onassis-Kennedy, Michelle Obama and, now, Melania Trump, wear are living artefacts; pieces that reveal the role of the First Lady, her political and democratic responsibilities, and how she shapes her public persona. Once worn, outfits are archived and presented by the Smithsonian Museum in their First Ladies exhibition, which is now almost a hundred years old.
Considering this, what the First Lady choses to wear on her first day in her new office is hugely significant. With one outfit-choice she gives the world a taste of her husband’s administration and of her place within it.
Michelle Obama’s first inauguration outfit is now infamous – a mixture of high-end (Jimmy Choo shoes) and high-street (J.Crew gloves), known (Nina Ricci cardigan) and unknown (Isabel Toledo dress and coat). At a basic level, Obama’s approach to her duties as First Lady were considered in the choice; Obama would go on to support American designers, in particular supporting racial diversity in the American fashion industry (Isabel Toledo is a Cuban-American designer). “First ladies traditionally stick to one designer, but Mrs. Obama made a point of wearing clothes from a wide range of young, multi-cultural designers, which sent a message of inclusiveness and great support for the fashion industry,” fashion writer told Kate Betts described to ELLE.com. In her colour choice also Obama set a precedent. Described as everything from citron to acid yellow and lemongrass, Obama refused to play a shrinking violet to her husband. It was a theme that would continue throughout her time as First Lady where she chose to work within the spotlight, very much as an individual – now she is known merely as Michelle Obama, not as the ‘President’s Wife’.
So what does Melania Trump’s Inauguration outfit tell us about her plans as First Lady? For the Inaugural Parade on Friday it was clear that Melania was looking to the past for inspiration. Wearing a powder blue shift dress, matching wrap, elbow-length gloves and heeled pumps – all by Ralph Lauren – Trump was, not surprisingly, instantly compared to Jackie Onassis-Kennedy on social media and by several news outlets. In fact, the outfit recalls Kennedy’s own Inauguration look (1961), which included a light blue Oleg Cassini skirt suit.
Melania’s choice of designer too is significant. Alongside cowboys and apple pie, Ralph Lauren is quintessentially American. As the New York Times Online described the choice, “Mr. Lauren is a designer who has built an empire on the mythology of the American dream”. A perfect match for the self-made Trump family and the Slovenian model turned First Lady.
Perhaps this tried-and-tested, by the numbers outfit, so evocative of America’s most iconic First Lady, is in answer to criticism that Trump is not ‘First Lady material’; a criticism that by default considers Donald Trump as not ‘President material’. It suggests that Melania Trump is taking a step backwards to the traditional sense of First Lady waiting on the side-lines.
In one outfit Melania Trump poses the question of a second ‘Camelot’; a Trump dynasty that rivals the Kennedys’. Will she and her husband be successful? Can Melania appropriate the Jackie O legacy to become a First Lady of equal significance, married to a President whose term rivals John F. Kennedy’s? Only time will tell. What is certain though is that she has some large shoes (or would that be a large light pink pillbox hat?) to fill.
Words by Esther Newman