Though she is wealthy and famous, anti-cyberbullying activist Melania Trump is just like any one of us: When she puts on her pants, she does it one leg at a time. Jackets, however, are a different story. To the first lady, sleeves are useless. Arms are best glued to the torso under the body of a coat, not maneuvered into tubes to be flailed about or, heaven forbid, used.
Trump has spent her three years in the public eye demonstrating how to wear a coat without surrendering to the sleeve. When there’s a nip in the air, she takes her outerwear directly from hanger to shoulders, restricting her movements so it doesn’t slide off. The effect is similar to that of a mannequin: a perfectly formed vehicle for other people’s creations, with limited mobility and agency. You can see why the wife of our president Donald Trump might favor the look.
This week, Trump posted on social media a photo of herself gazing at a wall of pills at an opioid-related memorial. The sleeves of her pink overcoat hung like dead fish from her shoulders, with no arms to shape them or hands to give them a natural end. Her unclothed arm, meanwhile, reached out from within to touch the wall. The optical effect made her look inhuman, with the wrong number of limbs attached at all the wrong angles.
The sleeved-but-sleeveless approach to jackets is a favorite among people who attend various fashion weeks. Former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth often drapes one particular leather jacket over her shoulders, and sometimes this denim one, and occasionally a peacoat. Adult Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who is known for her flashy outerwear, loves to keep her sleeves flapping freely by her sides. For this rarefied community, it seems like no-sleeves might be a practical way to preserve a garment that costs thousands of dollars: Sleeves with no arms in them won’t get stretched-out outer elbows or wrinkled inner ones. In 2012, the Guardian called the style “shoulder-robing”; the year after, BuzzFeed published a mini-explainer. Apparently, the article said, everyone wants to wear their most stylish new coats to September fashion shows, but the weather is too hot for winter wear. Draping a heavy coat over the shoulders lets the arms (and, crucially, the armpits) breathe.
This is a surprisingly commonsense explanation for an inherently anti-utilitarian act. An untethered jacket is one stiff breeze or enthusiastic wave away from ending up on the floor, requiring the wearer to forever marshal one cubic inch of brainspace toward the effort of keeping the thing on. “But people fancy enough to leave their arms out of their sleeves are never subjected to the elements, e.g. stiff breezes, and if they defile their ensembles by waving, they would hardly do so enthusiastically,” you are probably saying. Fair, but when it comes to Trump, you’re wrong! Waving and walking through breezes are two of the first lady’s primary job responsibilities. See her brave the weather at tarmacs, outdoor podia, and tourist hotspots below.
Yes, perhaps Trump was too warm in some of these places to fully inhabit a coat she very much wanted to wear. But I suspect the image of a woman too important to have to move her arms for anything appealed to her more than a well-regulated body temperature. Impractical fashion carries with it the implication that one can outsource all practical labor. When Trump leaves her arms out of her sleeves, she’s telling us she doesn’t have to perform any of the daily manual tasks the rest of us do: She will never reach for anything in a cabinet, stoop to pick anything off the ground, hold open any doors, pour any glasses of water, lift her arms to fix her hair, or fish a credit card out of a purse. If she did, her coat would slip right off.
With Trump’s coat in position, she projects a kind of diminutive female frailty—unable to exert physical effort, confined to a set of spatial boundaries by a thin piece of cloth. A person wearing a coat without its sleeves doesn’t bundle up in it; she hugs it around her shoulders, a demure gesture that suggests her lover has just wrapped her inside. It’s crossing her ankles, but for her arms.
Washington Post fashion columnist Robin Givhan called 2017 “the year of the sleeve” for Trump, who often appeared in public with blousy, fur-trimmed, or otherwise embellished sleeves on her dresses. This did not apply to her coats, whose sleeves she rarely employed, but it may help explain them. A fancy dress sleeve could easily be compromised by a narrow coat sleeve. It could get wrinkled, snagged or de-puffed while making its way through; wearing a coat like a cape preserves the sleeves underneath. Stiff or otherwise immobile dress sleeves could also make getting into and out of a coat an ungainly experience, something Trump might not want the cameras to capture.
But the best explanation for Trump’s sleeveless styling came in February, when she and Donald boarded Marine One on their way to Ohio.* The president tried to grab her hand, but only got a hold of her sleeve, then made an awkward show of moving to her other side. In this scenario, Trump’s empty sleeve functioned as a safety buffer. When your arms aren’t where they’re supposed to be, it’s a lot harder for other people to find them.
Correction, April 20, 2018: This post originally misstated the call sign for Marine One, the presidential helicopter, as Marine Force One.