Last Halloween at the White House, first lady Melania Trump came face-to-face with a miniature version of herself. What stands out the most in photos of the encounter is the child's costume: white Adidas sneakers, black slacks, a white collared shirt. If it weren't for the girl's hat, which labeled her FLOTUS, you likely wouldn't have realized she was trick-or-treating as Mrs. Trump at all.
— Inside Edition (@InsideEdition) October 31, 2017
This is no indictment of the mini-Melania's creativity — her costume actually got everything right about the famously private and anonymous first lady. After all, it is hard to dress up as someone who is always dressed as someone else.
To most people, Trump's wardrobe is most memorable for the blunders, from wearing impractical stilettos to visit Hurricane Harvey victims to her famous "I Don't Really Care, Do U?" jacket. But really, hers is a game of dress up; even those ostensible blunders can be explained as costumes gone awry. Though the towering Manolo Blahniks she wore en route to a region under 33 trillion gallons of water in 2017 got all the attention, her Tom Cruise sunglasses and green bomber jacket make it clear she's seen a disaster movie or two. You can practically hear Tyra Banks whispering out-of-frame: "Disaster relief, but make it fashion."
Likewise, her dismissive Zara jacket is a dizzyingly meta costume. Like an angsty teenager going to the Halloween ball as an angsty teenager, she's a media-averse first lady going to a photo opp dressed as a media-averse first lady. As her husband wrote, the jacket "refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!"
While there are plenty of conspiracy theories about Melania Trump sending hidden messages of resistance with pussy bows and suffragette whites, she is nothing if not loathe to be scrutinized. Even before moving to the White House, she rarely opened herself up in public. When she does choose to show herself to the world, she is immaculate, almost queenly in her aloof perfection. Yet despite being hailed as a potential White House fashion icon, Trump's day-to-day costumes are unmemorable. Her "default" is to blend into the background in beiges and blacks. In transit, she is never without sunglasses to hide behind. She remains spotlight averse, and her costumes play a part in shielding her from the world.
Trump still finds herself in situations where she knows she will be photographed, and that's when her outfits get more interesting. Take, most recently, her solo photo-op trip to Africa. The most noteworthy outfit, for Egypt, was taken directly out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as if she had been dressed to resemble the villainous Belloq. Whatever the inspiration, the beige-and-white ensemble, topped off with a fedora, made her either look like a treasure hunter or someone dressing for the role of a white protagonist who will Learn Something Important from the local population before returning home a Changed Woman.
It was not her only odd wardrobe choice. Trump departed for the continent in leopard print heels and wore a green-and-beige army get-up in Ghana, a safari dress in Malawi, a literal pith hat in Kenya, and a dress emblazoned with zebras and rhinos to meet with the Kenyan first lady. Dressing for the occasion is one thing, but there is something especially prescribed about Trump's closet abroad. More than being uncreative and slightly racist — Trump seemed to hover within a hair's breadth of wearing kente cloth — the choices feel pulled from an "I'm going to Africa!" Pinterest board. They were costumes for someone playing the part of going abroad, not expressions of who Melania Trump is as a person.
Even Trump's debut as America's first lady was borrowed. When asked what kind of first lady she would be back in 2000, when Donald Trump first ran for office, she offered not adjectives but characters: "Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy." In assuming that role 16 years later, she wore a dress almost identical in color to the one Kennedy wore during her husband's swearing in, complete with high powder blue gloves. While the decision is a nod to presidential history and tradition, it is also yet another way that Trump has refused to allow herself to be pinned down.
Trump and her spokespeople have suggested that focusing on the first lady's outfits is sexist. It's a convenient excuse, but a misplaced one. Choosing an outfit is making a decision about how we present ourselves to the world, and how a man wears a tie or what shoes a woman wears is as revealing as the words they say or the facial expressions they make.
Melania Trump's outfits create characters for her to hide behind. Any trace of Trump's true personality was long ago replaced with dangerous-looking heels and characterless designer trenches and jeans. Because wearing a costume is easy. Costumes are safe.
Behind a costume, no one knows who you are.