They call it Foxification on Fox TV – the carapace of indestructible hair and contoured armour female newsreaders on that channel must wear. The US First Lady is a more refined, fashion-savvy version. “Glacial perfection” is one commonly used description. She never appears with a hair out of place, usually poised on four-inch heels like the mascot on a ship’s prow, clothes smoothed, tailored and weighted to prevent all possible mishaps.
The flawlessness and arrested ageing can seem almost eerily controlled. To some, this suggests a degree of solipsism and extravagance. But the First Lady, who is 50 tomorrow, is undeniably elegant, an unapologetic champion of Rich Woman Dressing – the shoes that require limos, the crease-prone taffetas and silks that require a fleet of maids, the tan, the smooth, honeyed hair, the hefty amounts of “me-time” and, pre-White House, the fur (real, until she renounced it in 2017).
In many ways, her appearance is the polar opposite of her husband – dignified and consistent where he is neither. While many mocked her literal interpretation of First Lady decorum (a 2018 trip to Africa prompted a wardrobe of looks lifted almost item for item from 1985’s blockbuster movie Out of Africa) it could also be taken as an indication of how much she respects the role.
If she plays more rigidly by the unwritten (and some say outdated) rule book of First Lady dressing than, say, Michelle Obama, that may be because she’s less confident, more wary. The former First Lady was a successful lawyer. Melania was a model from Slovenia who only became well known after she married a controversial, reality-show famous billionaire.
Sartorially, she made her mistakes in those early years (who didn’t? It was a tacky era) but not as many as her enemies might hope. However, the Melania construct tends to unravel whenever she gets in front of a glossy magazine photographer. First there was the unforgettable appearance on the cover and many pages inside of British GQ in 2000 in which she appeared semi-naked on her husband’s private 747, partially shielded by slabs of fur, jewellery and in one particularly gruesome shot, a revolver. Then, in 2017, she popped up on the cover of Mexican Vanity Fair, coiffed and queenly, forking strands of jewels into her mouth. Given that half of Mexicans live in poverty, the words tin and ear don’t really cover it. Of the infamous Zara parka she wore to visit migrant children in detention centres in 2018 – the one that had the words “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” graffitied on the back of it – she later said it was intended as a message not to the children but sections of the media who constantly criticised her. Whatever, the timing showed breathtaking clumsiness.
While the US Left sometimes likes, jokily, to claim Melania as one of their own (hence all the #freeMelania hashtags, and the posters of her face next to the message: blink twice if you need help) there is zero evidence for her being a closet socialist.
Presumably, the increasingly regal, demure attire she adopted from around 2015, is an attempt to erase the GQ memory as well as erect a protective carapace around herself. She is rumoured never to have wanted the role of First Lady – in leaving New York and earning the public opprobrium of some fashion designers, who piled in to say they would not be dressing her, she lost two of her favourite passions.
Well not quite. Her husband’s deep pockets have enabled her to continue dressing as she pleases without having to rely on “loans” and she rarely pays even lip service to recent tradition that state figures should occasionally dress from the high street.
She is probably the most enigmatic of all the US’s First Ladies. Last year in US Esquire magazine, Woody Harrelson recalled a dinner with the Trumps “at a fair table with four people, each person is entitled to 25 per cent of the conversation, right? I’d say Melania got about 0.1pc, maybe. I got about 1pc. And the governor, Jesse, he got about 3pc. Trump took the rest.” But when she does talk, apparently her husband takes note.
Sometimes there’s a fissure in the serene veneer as when she visibly batted her husband’s hand away on a visit to Israel. She knows how much power lies in silent gestures. In Free, Melania, an unauthorised biography of the First Lady, CNN reporter Kate Bennett theorised that whenever the Trumps are unhappy with each other, “Melania wears menswear – because Trump notoriously likes to see women in tight, short, ubersexy and feminine dresses.”
One thing’s evident: there isn’t another First Lady in American history about whom it is so hard to be objective. To Trump supporters, she is female perfection. To his critics, she’s the ultimate rich, surrendered wife.
Whether or not you like the High Republican Chic she embodies, she has stepped up to the sartorial side of the First Lady Bargain with panache, representing her country the best way she knows how.
Lisa Armstrong's column appears each Saturday in The Saturday Telegraph and is published online every Saturday at 7am on Telegraph Fashion.