Two weeks removed, I am in almost no way mourning the end of the Trump administration. From life-or-death matters to more petty things like the quality of our conversations, Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House made America worse by just about every conceivable metric.
Except one, maybe! As Slate’s sporadic fashion correspondent, I did not hate the time I spent poring over Melania Trump’s outfits. The former first lady didn’t do many things worth writing about—and the ones she did were often racist, stupid, or otherwise contemptible—but her clothes were often compelling to me, a fact I have resisted long enough. Like it or not, since first ladies have no official policymaking role, fashion is one of the few arenas in which they can shine—and Melania often did, in pleasingly strange ways.
There were some pieces of Melania’s wardrobe I genuinely liked. One of the few things she and I share in common is a proclivity for pussy bows and voluminous sleeves, so I had to begrudgingly appreciate the pink Gucci blouse she wore to an otherwise horrifying presidential debate in 2016, and the two striking Delpozo ensembles she sported in the fall of 2017. I dug the disco vibes of the wide-legged jumpsuits she wore on a trip to Riyadh in 2017 and at Trump’s campaign kickoff in 2020, which she paired with metallic belts that were gigantic and merely huge, respectively. I was somewhat wowed by the oversize goldenrod-and-fuchsia Valentino cape that threatened to swallow her whole during a visit with Prince Charles and Camilla in 2019. It cut a cheeky figure against the stuffy backdrop of the prince’s residence, and it looked rather cozy for a December trip to London.
But mostly, when I found myself appreciating a Melania outfit, it was because her wardrobe was largely out of step with first lady tradition, and frequently straight-up weird. She eschewed both the demure, pastel-and-patriotic mien historically associated with the role and the more recent J. Crew populism of Michelle Obama in favor of bright colors, architectural silhouettes, and relentless stiletto pumps. She wore what she wanted, and what she wanted was big-name European designers, Barbie heels, signifiers of upper-crust leisure, and the sort of oversize sunglasses associated with celebrities who want to evade the paparazzi. She seemed to give no thought to what message her choice of clothing sent to the hundreds of millions of people watching—even as it was often the only message she delivered. In one of the Trump administration’s few forays into honesty, her spokeswoman told the Washington Post, “She does not worry about her critics or paying tribute to specific designers.” Fair enough!
Some of Melania’s choices felt more in the mode of Fox News anchor than first lady: She wore bare legs under a red Givenchy minidress in one of her first appearances in the role, and she was no stranger to visible cleavage or high-cut slits in leather skirts. Others were explicit departures from convention: What was the deal with the first couple’s matching tuxedos in its final White House Christmas card? Under any other president, there would have been endless analysis of that symbolism-rich image. But given the steady stream of Trump administration outrages and the knowledge that there was never any hidden meaning to anything Melania did, it barely registered.
Many more Melania outfits were simply bizarre, revealing a total lack of understanding of—or interest in—how her presence affected and interacted with her surroundings. Why oh why, for instance, would she wear lime green on the last night of the 2020 Republican National Convention? The Valentino gown was fine on its own, but it clashed with everything else: the plenteous flags, the carpeting, the black-and-blue palette established by her family members. In photos, brightened by art directors for publication, the dress was even more garish, its blown-out color obscuring its decadent pleats. This was the dress of a woman who couldn’t be bothered to think of herself as part of a team, or to consider how her clothing might look outside the context of a stylist’s rack, runway, or red carpet.
Melania’s stunted understanding of fashion also resulted in hilariously on-the-nose getups. She favored cargo jackets and olive drab when visiting the troops. She wore a red plaid cape for a Christmas-tree event and an autumnal brocade (a tribute to your grandmother’s sofa) to help pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. A trip to Egypt called for a cream fedora and slacks—Indiana Jones, but make it fashion (and dry-clean it). To play up the twin threats of heavily armed civilians and rising nationalism, Melania cosplayed in a militia-chic battle jacket for her 2020 RNC speech. The worst in this category was the pith helmet she wore in Kenya, on the same 2018 tour that included her Egypt moment, as well as several other appearances in olive drab and safari gear. Yes, it was colonialist, but it was also a sign that Melania approached her every first lady duty as a kind of themed photoshoot, à la America’s Next Top Model. While the world held its breath waiting for a volatile president’s next moves, Melania played dress-up.
Still, even as the Trump presidency stretched over an interminable four years, I never tired of keeping up with Melania’s wardrobe. My endurance owed in part to her unabashed embrace of luxury—I do not rue the minutes I spent ogling the craftsmanship on that $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana coat—and to the satisfying caricature she presented of a rich lady whose entire identity is being proud of being rich. You could see it in the way she never put her arms in her coat sleeves but made sure to half-pop the collars on the button-down shirts she wore for natural disaster visits and other down-’n’-dirty occasions. There are plenty of smarmy would-be billionaires, like Kelly Loeffler, who’ll force themselves into trucker hats and flannel on the campaign trail to approximate a working-class aesthetic. I’ll always prefer the honesty of Melania.
There are no broad takeaways from Melania’s four years in the fashion spotlight. Her style just wasn’t that deep. She considered the role of political spouse beneath her, and her disdain came through in her clothes. She dressed for the cameras, but not for the job. The one time she did try to make a statement with her clothing—the “I really don’t care do u?” jacket, which she wore on a trip to visit migrant children—it was a massive fail: Despite the fact that the inane sentence was literally written on her back, it was entirely inscrutable. Was it making a mockery of the plight of migrant families? A jab at Ivanka? An attempt at trolling the “liberal media” she hated?
No one ever figured it out. Did we care? Not really. In the end, the jacket news cycle was a good metaphor for the role Melania’s fashion played in the administration, at least for me. In the midst of the sustained human rights abuses enacted by her husband, it was a relief to be temporarily diverted by something completely inconsequential.