This morning as I scrolled down The Telegraph’s homepage, the power of fashion messaging – and how it can go wrong – was perfectly crystallised. ‘Call for unity and sympathy strikes a different note,’ read the headline on this newspaper’s coverage of Melania Trump’s speech. Her words were conciliatory, and argued for unity over division: “I don’t want to use this precious time attacking the other side,” she said.
In many ways, this was a traditional FLOTUS approach, being the gentle voice of sympathy and calm. Why, then, did Mrs Trump look more like she was leading an army into battle than seeking to heal a nation which has faced the double crisis of the coronavirus pandemic and escalating racial tensions?
The First Lady’s belted khaki jacket was quickly identified as being a £1,413 Alexander McQueen design, first worn by Kaia Gerber last year. When Cindy Crawford’s model daughter wore the look, the effect was street style cool. In a political context, at a time of particularly heightened tensions, the vibe was, well, confusing.
Even if Melania was trying to reassure the nation with her placating words, the vision of her looking so combative was far from comforting. Take away the sound from the video, and one might have assumed a grave announcement. But with Donald Trump behind in the polls, it’s plausible that his wife’s jacket signals the fight which is ahead of them to win another term in the White House.
Not that the First Lady has ever been one for pretty, optimistic florals anyway. In fact, her penchant for slick, high fashion can often come across just as acerbically as the flick she has on occasion been seen to give her husband as he tries to hold her hand during photo opportunities.
So perhaps Melania’s McQueen jacket was a symbol that, yes, she was standing up to speak for Trump at an important milestone in his bid for re-election, but don’t expect her to open up any more than that tightly cinched belt she was wearing around her waist.
It’s a possibility which is backed up by the improbable explanation which was given for the ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ jacket which she wore a migrant child detention centre in 2018. The look was immediately construed to suggest her indifference to the suffering of children, however her spokeswoman later insisted that, “it was for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticising me. I want to show them I don’t care. You could criticise whatever you want to say. But it will not stop me to do what I feel is right.”
That the khaki hue of that jacket was recalled in last night’s McQueen was perhaps no mistake.
It’s noteworthy, too, how closely the outfit resembled Claire Underwood’s transition to ever sharper tailoring as the TV show House of Cards progressed, culminating in the character transforming from political wife to President in her own right. Melania’s speech contained references to her husband’s divisive reputation – she acknowledged how “mean and manipulative social media can be” and that “whether you like it or not you always know what he’s (Donald Trump) thinking”.
An HoC-style takeover seems wildly unlikely, but Melania does understand that her voice and actions will have an impact as the campaign intensifies – just look at the controversy she evoked when she chose to wear a pussy bow blouse just days after recordings of her husband speaking about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ were released during 2016’s campaign.
Whatever the enigmatic undertones of the McQueen jacket, one thing’s for sure: Melania Trump is ready for battle.