23-Nov, 07:00

11:38, November 11 75 0

2017-11-11 11:38:02
It’s Melania 2.0, as Mrs. Trump Iterates in Asia

The clues were in the coats.

Melania Trump emerged from Air Force One for the Japan leg of her husband’s Grand Tour of Asia in a nubby Fendi knit coat that looked like nothing so much as an oversize grandpa cardigan, albeit one with quasi-carnations on the pockets. It was such a contrast from the coat dresses and suits she had worn during her first international trip — and even the tailored, constrained purple Pucci coat she wore to leave the White House a few days ago — that it was practically a banner held over her head announcing “things will be different this time.”

And indeed, they were. As the trip itself ended on Friday, and Mrs. Trump arrived in Alaska in a three-quarter-length beige Prince of Wales Ralph Lauren puffer — let’s just say that again, “puffer” — coat over an orange turtleneck, leaving her husband to continue to Vietnam and the Philippines on his own, there had been a notable shift in her visual messaging. From a defensive posture, where much of her wardrobe seemed to function as armor, it had palpably softened up.

Weird as it sounds, the look was what might be termed “calculated cuddly.” And not just when she was visiting children and cozying up to pandas — though the photo ops and the outfits were probably not unrelated. These were six days where every look was preplanned in advance, down to the shoes. All the choices were conspicuously conscious. This was not a case of standing in front of one’s closet, scratching one’s head, and thinking, “what do I feel like wearing today?”

Yet almost everyone missed the change. Which is in itself worth noting.

All the posturing that took place among designers a year ago about not dressing Mrs. Trump seems to have gone the way of Sean Spicer. (What can you do? She buys her clothes.) There were no complaints about the fact she wore not a single Asian designer while in Asia. Nor did people complain that she also wore very few American brands. There was no upset over the cost of her wardrobe, which ran well into the tens of thousands of dollars, and the elitism that implies.

In part this may be because there is so much else going on that it can seem pointlessly distracting to pay any attention at all to what the first lady wears. But given the limited exposure of Mrs. Trump, and her carefully chosen and calibrated public appearances, the foreign trip provided a rare concentrated opportunity for understanding the strategic thinking in the East Wing, which has something to do with the West Wing.

She may also have received less scrutiny because of … Hope Hicks, White House communications czar, and her tuxedo.

Or, to be fair, her tuxedo worn with a floppy, dandified bow tie to the state dinner in Japan, accessorized with a Breck Girl blow out and fuchsia lipstick. The menswear-inspired suit was such an unexpected choice in an administration that constantly sends the message that girls should be girls even if they are in power positions (see Ivanka’s pink flounces, as well as Ms. Hicks’ usual chirpy dresses), that the internet started flapping and it didn’t stop even when Ms. Hicks appeared in what was generally deemed a “baggy” (in the words of the Daily Mail) fuchsia dress and black blazer at the China state dinner — and then another “baggy” shirt on the way to Vietnam.

Though Ms. Hicks’ rise through the ranks has been marked by a clear propensity for remaining in the background, this time she became the story.

Perhaps she was simply gearing up for what will clearly be a moment in public, when she is interviewed on her return to the United States by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the Russia investigation. Perhaps it was a deliberate statement that she is in charge, after the so brief Anthony Scaramucci moment (remember that?).

Either way, it took the spotlight completely off Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her eye-opening appearance in pearls and a camo jacket on the tarmac in South Korea during President Trump’s aborted attempt to make a “surprise” visit to the DMZ. This combination, inadvertent as it was (apparently Ms. Sanders borrowed the jacket from a helicopter pilot because she was cold), seemed almost the perfect expression of the Trump carrot and stick in sartorial form.

It’s too bad Ms. Hicks and Ms. Sanders got so much of the attention, because there are lessons to be learned about how the first lady is managing her own issues of perception and her approach to her job, from the choices she made while abroad.

The list of designers worn was long, and the price tags were high: Fendi, Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Pucci, Delpozo, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Louboutin, J. Mendel, Manolo Blahnik, Valentino, the Row, Alaia (to name most of them). She made a nod, in China, to local aesthetics — at least as interpreted by Western eyes — with her Gucci quasi-cheongsam with its faux-pink-fur finish on the sleeves, mandarin collar and heavy stylized floral embroidery. But it was a rare concession to sartorial symbolism (and not a very good one, though it did perhaps inadvertently reveal the myopic way the administration sees that country). Mostly, she has stuck to speaking with silhouette. She’d not going to be an advocate for the industry in any overt way, but she’s still using clothing to her own ends.

And there the overall imagery added up to something new.

Hemlines were longer, and necklines higher. There were flats. There were a lot of dresses. Though Mrs. Trump wore two tailored black coats (Dolce & Gabbana and McQueen), and a tuxedo coat dress from Hervé Pierre, they were the exception, rather than the rule. The skirts were generally full, rather than straight; sleeves fluted or curved or caped or cap; cuts of the sort often labeled “generous” as opposed to “strict” or “knife-edge.”

The effect was a line no longer harsh and rigorously drawn, but fluid.

Metaphor? Subversion? Maybe. But given the carefully choreographed costume pageantry of such official trips, one year after the election first propelled her out of the gilded security of Trump Tower and onto the public stage, it was probably not a coincidence.