In Trump’s first State of the Union, Melania plays part, but not entirely as scripted

Jan 31, 2018
  • By Vanessa Friedman
  • The New York Times
Pool/Getty Images
U.S. first lady Melania Trump departs The Capitol at the conclusion of President Donald J. Trump's State of the Union Address on Capitol Hill January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address for the president and his second joint-session address to Congress.

It took the State of the Union to get her in a state of quasi-support. On Tuesday night Melania Trump finally appeared in public alongside her husband (or at least in the same very large room, though they apparently arrived separately) for the first time since the public allegations that President Donald Trump had conducted, just weeks after Melania Trump had given birth to the couple’s son, an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. 

That Melania Trump did so in a white pantsuit with a glowing white blouse — exactly the kind of outfit that became a symbol of her husband’s rival, Hillary Clinton, during the last election, and has since become widely accepted as sartorial shorthand for both the suffragists and contemporary women’s empowerment, and something of an anti-Trump uniform — seemed to be about as subtle a slap in the face as could be contained in a garment. 

She was playing her part, but she wasn’t doing it entirely as scripted. 

Of course, it’s possible Melania Trump chose the suit, a Christian Dior style with cropped trousers and curvaceous jacket, to stand out against the sea of black worn by the Democratic Women’s Working Group and its supporters, following the donning of black at the Golden Globes in honor of Time’s Up and #MeToo. (Though many of those same women wore white to her husband’s first address to a joint session of Congress last year.) 

It’s possible Melania Trump did it to show solidarity with the female members of the GOP, who had been urged to wear patriotic red, white and blue, as were the members of the Cabinet. Many of the men sported red and blue ties to match the blue ties of the president and House Speaker Paul Ryan, and the red tie of Vice President Mike Pence. 

It’s possible. 

But given that clothes became a symbolic dividing line during this State of the Union like seemingly never before — the members of the Congressional Black Caucus also expressed their point of view through their attire, with many wearing kente cloth and black outfits in reference to, and repudiation of, the president’s denigrating comment about Africa and Haiti this month — it’s hard to believe that the possible (and indeed, probable) interpretations of her choice escaped the first lady. 

Especially because during her husband’s address last year, Melania Trump came under fire very quickly for her choice of what was seen as a let-them-eat-cake black sequined Michael Kors suit. Especially because she has proved, over the last few months, perfectly cognizant of the way dress can be used as an implicit form of messaging, wearing red Dior for her trip to France for Bastille Day, and Dolce & Gabbana to the G-7 in Sicily. 

And especially given the almost elated reception that greeted her decision to wear a bright pink pussy bow blouse for an appearance during the campaign after her husband’s previous public sexual shaming, the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he made vulgar remarks about women. If she has paid any attention at all to public reaction (or if her team has), she cannot be ignorant of the fact that when she seems to use clothing as a subversive tool to suggest what she presumably cannot say, it provokes a groundswell of support. 

Though it was unclear at the time whether Melania Trump really understood the implications of that blouse choice, wearing a white suit to the State of the Union indicates that, indeed, she did. That when it comes to what she wears and what she means by it, she chooses her moments. Sometimes, such as at the Easter egg roll, it’s just about a pretty dress. But other times, as this time, her fashion is accessorized with a pointed subtext. 

Taken together with the wardrobe choices of the Democrats and Republicans, the first lady’s white suit made for what appeared to be an unprecedentedly politicized use of dress during a State of the Union. Everyone in the audience was theoretically supposed to be silent — the president was talking — but their clothes spoke for them. And they did it at a time when millions of viewers across the country were watching, and could read the message in the material. Why wait for the rebuttals? They can start white now.