The Goods

Why Melania Trump Rarely Uses Sleeves As They Were Intended: A Few Theories

A collage of a chilly first lady, Melania Trump wearing a jacket over her shoulders.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis - Pool/Getty Images, and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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.

US First Lady Melania Trump stands alongside the gown she wore to the 2017 inaugural balls as she donates the dress to the Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, October 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Like a mannequin, Melania Trump has no upper arms. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28:  U.S. first lady Melania Trump takes part in a 'Blessing of the Garden' with Michael Williams (R), chairman of the board, at the Children's National Health System April 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump spoke a the opening of the Bunny Mellon Healing Garden for patients and famlies, an outdoor location for to safely spend time outdoors while receiving treatment at the hospital.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Every gesture is a risk. Win McNamee/Getty Images

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.

From left : US First Lady Melania Trump arrives for a visit at the Chierici Palace City Hall of Catania on the sidelines of a G7 summit of the Heads of State and of Government in Taormina, on May 26, 2017 in Sicily.
The leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the US and Italy will be joined by representatives of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as teams from Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia during the summit from May 26 to 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / GIOVANNI ISOLINO        (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
Sleeves that feel all empty inside. Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21:  U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks with his son Barron Trump and first lady Melania Trump before pardoning the National Thanksgiving Turkey in the Rose Garden at the White House November 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Following the presidential pardon, 'Drumstick,' the 40-pound White Holland breed which was raised by Turkey Federation Chairman Carl Wittenburg in Minnesota, will then reside at his new home, 'Gobbler's Rest,' at Virginia Tech.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Donald and Melania Trump, only one of them in sleeves. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
US First Lady Melania Trump walks on the Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Beijing on November 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI        (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
No arms are getting anywhere near the Great Wall. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

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, DC - DECEMBER 07:  First lady Melania Trump greets children after reading the Christmas book, The Polar Express at Children's National Medical Center, on December 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. First ladies dating back to Jacqueline Kennedy have made the annual visit to the Washington area hospital during the holiday season.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Elbows TUCKED. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
BOULDER, CO - OCTOBER 28:  Melania Trump, wife of presidential candidate Donald Trump, listens to her husband speak to the media in the spin room after the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate at University of Colorado's Coors Events Center October 28, 2015 in Boulder, Colorado.  Fourteen Republican presidential candidates participated in the third set of Republican presidential debates.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
This is the wildest thing her arm can do. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump walk across the tarmac to greet supporters upon arrival at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport in Cincinnati on February 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Hands-free? MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images
Hamburg's mayor Olaf Scholz greets US First Lady Melania Trump as she arrives to attend the partners' programme at the city hall during the G20 summit in Hamburg, northern Germany, on July 8, 2017.
Leaders of the world's top economies gather from July 7 to 8, 2017 in Germany for likely the stormiest G20 summit in years, with disagreements ranging from wars to climate change and global trade. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Jens Büttner        (Photo credit should read JENS BUTTNER/AFP/Getty Images)
Melania Trump’s sleeve waves “hello” without her consent. Jens Buttner/AFP/Getty Images
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) thanks his wife Melania (R) as he addresses his supporters after finishing second in the Iowa Caucus, in West Des Moines, Iowa, February 1, 2016.  
Republican Senator Ted Cruz has won the Iowa caucuses -- the first vote in the US presidential race -- in a tight contest with frontrunner Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio, US media projections showed. / AFP / Jim WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
“Here is my wife, and her—four arms?” Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, April 20, 2018: This post originally misstated the call sign for Marine One, the presidential helicopter, as Marine Force One.