Melania Could Not Have Gotten Affordable Dressing More Wrong

Fashion
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Last week, Melania Trump boarded a plane in Maryland to visit a detention center in Texas housing migrant children who have been taken from their parents. When she ascended the stairs of the plane, she was wearing a cargo-style jacket that had the words “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO YOU?” scrawled in all caps across the back.

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The style choice was met with disbelief and roundly criticized for its flagrant lack of empathy. It was also notable for its affordable price tag: $39 from Zara. (It’s no longer available on Zara’s website.)

It marks the rare occasion in which the First Lady has worn affordable fashion. She tends to favor high end European designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel, labels that are inaccessible for most Americans price-wise, and, notably, not American labels. During the campaign, she wore primarily European lines like Gucci, Roksanda Ilinčić, and Dior, despite her husband’s platform of supporting both American brands and products made in America. Since assuming the role as First Lady, she’s favored more of the same.

To wear affordable high-street fashion is a page right out of Michelle Obama’s style book, only gone horribly wrong. (If you’re keeping track, this is the second time Melania Trump has tried to copy Michelle Obama to disastrous effect.)

Who could forget in 2008, in her first appearance as First Lady-elect on the Tonight Show, when Michelle wore head-to-toe J.Crew—a $148 pencil skirt, a $148 tank top, and a $118 cardigan. In the week that followed, J.Crew’s stock price climbed 25 percent in three days.

When: October 27, 2008

 Where: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno



 Wearing: J. Crew 



 Why it mattered: When she appeared on the Tonight Show for the first time as First Lady Elect, Michelle made headlines for eschewing a designer name in favor of mall brand J.Crew. "It sent the message that style doesn't have to be exclusive, it doesn't have to be expensive," says fashion journalist Kate Betts. That democratic approach hit a chord with American women, who were soon flocking to the retailer in order to recreate her look. The items quickly sold out, J. Crew's stock price climbed 25 percent in three days—and the Michelle Obama effect was born.

Michelle Obama in J.Crew in October 2008.

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Then again, on the day of her first inauguration, she wore J.Crew leather gloves that every woman in America could buy at the mall that very afternoon if they so chose. After centuries of clothes most of us could never dream of even touching, those $88 gloves were a pale avocado bolt of authenticity and accessibility.

When: January 20, 2009

 Where: The Inaugural Parade in Washington, DC



 Wearing: Isabel Toledo dress and coat, Nina Ricci cardigan, Jimmy Choo heels, and J. Crew leather gloves



 Why it mattered: For Inauguration Day, Michelle chose a lemongrass ensemble designed by Isabel Toledo. The color is unusual but uplifting—again keeping in line with the message of her husband's campaign. Also significant was the designer, Cuban-born Toledo whose name, though beloved by fashion insiders, is far from a household one. "First ladies traditionally stick to one designer, but Mrs. Obama made a point of wearing clothes from a wide range of young, multi-cultural designers which sent a message of inclusiveness and great support for the fashion industry," notes Betts.

Michelle Obama in J.Crew.

Getty Images

In her time in office, Obama supported a cache of primarily American designers—Jason Wu, Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung, Tracy Reese, Zac Posen, Vera Wang, the list goes on. Often those designers were people of color. Often those designers were first or second generation Americans. The labels benefitted instantly from the name recognition Obama gave them.

But Michelle Obama wore fast fashion, too. In 2011, she wore a $35 H&M dress on the Today show. She wore a $95 ASOS dress on the campaign trail in 2012.

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When: August 15, 2012

 Where: At a campaign event at the Alliant Energy Amphitheater in Dubuque, Iowa 



 Wearing: Talbots dress



 Why it mattered: This image of Michelle and Barack hugging in Iowa during his second campaign will no doubt be remembered as one of the most iconic during their time in the White House. For the occasion, Michelle chose an affordable dress from ASOS with a sweetly retro silhouette—which was trending at the time. "That dress spoke to the occasion," says Givhan. "It was not the place for a $3000 day dress. And I think that it was certainly an indication that not only does she know herself but she also is sensitive to her audience and is trying to speak to her audience and meet her audience where they are."

Michelle Obama in ASOS at a campaign event in August 2012.

Getty Images

She even wore Zara—a pair of $50 pumps to an awards ceremony for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2012.

Zara ankle-strap pumps in 2012.

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But when Michelle Obama wore fast fashion, she did it mindfully, purposefully, and for a reason. Namely: Because those are the brands most of the women in this country can afford.

Melania Trump’s wardrobe has been divisive since before her husband was even elected. And then, this, a decision that’s hard to fathom.

Maybe she’d read one too many headlines criticizing her custom, bespoke, and designer wardrobe. She’d been criticized less than a year ago for wearing python Manolo Blahnik stilettos while visiting the victims of Hurricane Harvey. One can imagine this coat feeling more utilitarian, more democratic, and more appropriate. If, that is, it weren’t for those fighting words. Melania took brash words—marketed for an angry teenage consumer, no doubt—and magnified them on the world stage. (It’s also worth noting that it’s not the first time this year that a statement piece from a fast fashion brand became politicized. We live in a time where it pays to be mindful, even about a t-shirt or a jacket. She knows this.)

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Melania has told us that she chooses what she wears on purpose. That she stands behind that messaging or is too unfeeling to see it as offensive—notably, she wore the jacket twice, even after the public outcry—is almost too stultifying to comprehend. But perhaps it shouldn’t be.

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