“Vestis facit virum,” wrote Catholic priest and social critic Erasmus in Latin during the Middle Ages, arguing that “clothes make the man.” The adage rings even truer in the era of social media influencers and constant streaming, during which highly calibrated and staged photos make the rounds in the blink of an eye. Images depicting folks in carefully curated outfits and scenarios have an immediate and lasting impact, directly imbuing the photographed clothes with deep meaning.
Few current-day women’s sartorial choices have been dissected more than those of first lady Melania Trump, whose politics we can only assume given her marriage to President Donald Trump, but haven’t heard her ever really discuss. So opaque is Melania Trump as a person and so thirsty for information is the public that the first lady’s clothes have represented her assumed political stance, in many cases. But what is she saying? And, perhaps most important, is she even saying anything at all with her clothing?
“I think she stands for herself and nothing more than that,” New York University professor and media historian Moya Luckett told HuffPost. “I think she stands for an upwardly mobile immigrant from Eastern Europe who has become incredibly powerful but, with that, has not become as visible as she might like.”
“Is it sillier to acknowledge the strategy behind appearance, or to pretend such influences don’t exist?” wrote fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times Vanessa Friedman back in 2017, when discussing Melania’s style. The question, rhetorically presented to a public both constantly critiquing Melania Trump’s outfits and Friedman’s own critiques of them, is followed by the writer’s explanation of the first lady’s unique position. “In the current White House, it is Melania whose clothes may be the most telling,” Friedman wrote. “Not because she is a woman, but because since the election she has rarely...