Melania Trump: After four years in office, why the First Lady is still such an enigma

The First Lady's convention speech revealed a stylish political operator – but the clues have been there for years

Two things struck me, on watching Melania Trump address the Republican National Convention in August. The first was: But she’s got an accent! A ridiculous response actually, because: of course Melania Trump’s got an accent! She’s Slovenian; she came to the US in 1996, aged 27, already equipped with the sort of accent only a fraud would attempt to hide, shake, substitute.

Though equally, I suppose, my surprise on hearing her voice does testify to how unused I am to Melania speaking in public at all. How unused we all are; among us, the actress Bette Midler, who sparked a row on social media after mocking Melania as “an illegal alien” who “still can’t speak English”, thereby inviting accusations of xenophobia, even from the most hardened anti-Trump quarters.

It does rather remind us, how very little we actually know about Melania at all; how enigmatic and mysterious she has chosen to remain from us, certainly in comparison with all the First Ladies who came before her.

The second thing to occur to me was: she’s much better at this than I’d have anticipated. Softer, more convincing, more personable. Much more human. She hit all the notes required of her. She flattered her husband’s “base”, his die-hard supporters, commending the chance they took, four years ago, on a politically unproven businessman (thereby reinforcing Trump’s credentials as an outsider on the US political establishment, a quality his “people” relish in him); but she also invoked Covid 19and women’s rights, then teased her husband for his social media excesses, in a way that made you think she meant it. Which is not to say she did, or that she has any right to make such proclamations, or that her performance wasn’t planned and constructed and coached to the nth degree… who knows... But, regardless: it demonstrated there is clearly previously unsuspected political artistry to Melania Trump.

She looked the part, too. If you felt there was a touch of the Bond villainess to her presentation - that might be a little latent sexism stirring. We are rather inclined to assume very obviously good-looking people lack credibility, or authenticity, after all; and to associate the innate glamour Melania projects, with hidden nefarious agenda, when they might actually speak more to an Eastern European aesthetic that tends to sway that way.

As for the olive, structure and lapels on her jacket: that would have seemed a little heavy handed in the military-referencing stakes, if they hadn’t also worked really well with her skin tone and eyes, emphasising the line on her cheekbones and her eyebrows, in such a way as to suggest they could equally well have just been a good fashion call. And if her blow dry was immaculate, it was perhaps 25pc less flouncy and flamboyant than normal, in the name of seriousness. (Also: I should very much like to know which shade of lip gloss she was wearing.)

All in all: she did well. Think and say what you will about her husband. Heaven knows, I have. But Melania Trump pulled this moment off. It might even represent her highest point, presentation-wise. An accomplished climax of four years of her finessing and provoking us, with assorted fashion statements, hair styles, demeanours.

It might in fact have been nothing other than her trying her best to look nice, with the world’s media focused on her. But, if you believe that pictures can paint a 1,000 words, in the past four years, this is what we’ve gleaned so far...

That Pink Shirt

October 2016

Melania Trump sported the pink pussy-bowed blouse at a presidential debate two short days after the Access Hollywood tape  Credit:  AFP/ AFP

Melania Trump arrives at a presidential debate two short days after the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump was overheard talking about how being famous allowed him to “grab” women “by the p***y”, wearing $1100 worth of Gucci shirt, the neckline of which was secured by a large pussy-bow. Was she making a statement of proud defiance? If so: against whom? Her husband, whose casual disregard for female anatomy cannot have been an absolute surprise to her? Or his detractors, who were attempting to unseat him with the leaked tape? Was she merely channelling fashion resonances of Margaret Thatcher, Grace Kelly, Nancy Reagan, Princess Diana, all of whom favoured the PBB? Could she have known? Could she not have known? Did she just really like the blouse? We may never know, but heavens, it was fun speculating.

Powder Blue Ralph Lauren

January, 2017

'Powder blue is as mild and gentle in its approach and intentions as light pink, but rather more grown up.' Credit: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Worn for Trump’s inauguration into the White House. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which this wasn’t intended as a reference to the powder blue coat, pill box hat and – perhaps, most obviously – long gloves, which Jackie Kennedy wore to the 1961 inauguration of JFK. Powder blue is as mild and gentle in its approach and intentions as light pink, but rather more grown up; an unthreatening, respectful, faintly submissive expression of femininity. The opposite of red, if you will. The absence of cleavage and the updo might also be perceived as efforts to underplay the full impact of Melania’s sexuality.

All White for the 2018 State of the Union speech

January, 2018

All white: Melania Trump at the State of the Union Speech Credit: SAUL LOEB/ AFP

In January and February 2018, as the red carpets of all significant awards ceremonies – from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs – were overrun by women dressed entirely in black, a show of solidarity with the MeToo movement, much of which was grounded in a fundamental distaste for Trump, those who allied themselves with him, and the culture he and his p***y-grabbing revelations were perceived as embodying; Melania wore had-to-toe white at the State of the Union address.

A screaming disavowal of MeToo, a dismissal of all those women, and the things they’d suffered? Perhaps. At the same time, Melania’s all-white came in the form of a trouser suit, which could be perceived as a statement of feminist empowerment, even a coded message of support to Trump’s former opponent, Hillary Clinton, whose uniform of “pantsuits” had become a symbol of female political potency, through her bid to lead the country. This sounds less unlikely, if you subscribe to the idea, as some do, that Melania makes her displeasure with her husband publically known via the medium of menswear, which she adopts because Trump prefers women to dress in an uber-sexy, feminine manner.

Pinstriped Ralph Lauren to greet Justin Trudeau at the White House

October, 2017

Melania Trump wore a Ralph Lauren suit to greet Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie at the White House  Credit: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA

Maybe this is a case in point. 

Monochrome Christian Dior on a state visit to Paris

July 2017

Melania Trump wore Dior on a state visit to Paris in 2017 Credit: AFP/ MARTIN BUREAU

Which comes first? A desire to revere and celebrate the creative spirit, culture and history of the country you’re visiting in capacity as FLOTUS? Or a desire to wear Dior AMAP* (*As Much As Possible), which may or may not be associated with an eagerness not to be outdone by the eminently chic French President’s wife with whom you’ll inevitably be pictured a lot, because that’s kind of why you’re in Paris in the first place? (Extra points for the Brigitte Bardot referencing haute bouffe on the pony tail.)

A Zara jacket, while visiting migrant children on the US – Mexico border

June 2018

On a trip to the Mexico border, Melania Trump wore an army green parka emblazoned with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” Credit:  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

A $39 army green parka emblazoned with the words “I really don’t care, do u?”, worn on a visit to a migrant camp undertaken amid her husband’s administration riding out a storm concerning its zero tolerance policy on immigration… Has any single jacket ever provoked such wild speculation regarding its greater significance, in the history of jackets? Unlikely. But what did it mean? Was Melania telling us she didn’t care for her husband’s harsh immigration policy? Or the child migrants, she was faking concern over their fate? Or the press, that she didn’t care what they thought of her, her actions, or their interminable attempts to gain greater understanding of her psyche, by clumsily decoding her wardrobe choices like I am doing right now? Official spokespeople claimed it was none of the above, that it was merely a jacket. Anonymous sources said it was more likely intended as an undermining of her daughter-in-law Ivanka Trump’s persistent efforts to align herself with the most likable aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency. Months later, Melania herself would tell an ABC News interviewer she thought it “obvious” that the jacket was nothing more than a jacket “to go on and off the plane”.

A suit, tie and Panama hat on visiting the Sphinx and the pyramids

October 2018

This outfit subtly invokes memories of Princess Diana, writes Polly Vernon Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

How else to ensure you scene-steal from one of the seven wonders of the world, while simultaneously quietly invoking memories of Princess Diana, alone, outside the Taj Mahal, and (just possibly) berating your husband over some private slight?