Monday, June 17, 2024

Perspective | When Melania Trump wears a hat

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More than half a century after hats disappeared as an essential part of the American ensemble, they reappeared at the most recent season of fashion shows, with designers such as Altuzarra and Chanel showing models with 1950s-inspired pillboxes and oversize portrait hats.

Hats have become a funny little fashion gesture — a signal of personality, but mostly of dottiness. (Ha-ha! Look at this large arcane thing on my head!) They seem unlikely to permeate the world outside the bubble of fashion influencers and celebrities on the red carpet. When most of the world dresses in athleisure, why would you risk standing out in a hat?

Melania Trump presumably knows why, but her odd styling leaves her motives a mystery. On Friday, she made one of her rare appearances, attending her son Barron’s high school graduation in a dark Christian Dior bar jacket, a white skirt, heels and a subtly sparkly gold Gucci boater on her head. (Her husband, despite protesting that his Manhattan hush money trial would keep him from attending the ceremony, also was there.) While e-commerce ads of the Gucci hat show it perched on the model’s head with hipster-on-the-Riviera panache, Melania yanked the crown down, shading her face and making her eyes disappear. You see a brim, a shadow and her grin beneath. Combined with the strictness of the Dior’s hourglass shape, the hat, rather than conjuring carefree summer days or barbershop-quartet harmonies, looked strangely severe.

Melania dresses more like a person performing the cinematic version of a role than just dressing for the job — recall her pith helmet during a visit to Kenya — and in her latest star turn, she now seems to be cultivating an air of classic chic, the understated but stylish woman with some special knowledge of clothes. If designer pieces once seemed to be her refuge and pleasure, they are now her armor. In her last appearance, at a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, she also wore a black suit, and there is something vaguely frightening about her insistence on the severity of black, beloved by designers and intellectuals as a refusal of the noise and frivolousness that fashion often indulges. This is certainly a statement in Palm Beach, where everyone wears pinks, floral prints and 1970s-inspired geometric patterns. In the images of Melania at the ceremony, you can see other attendees behind her almost uniformly in floral prints. In 2021, when her husband left office, she departed the White House in a black suit and got off the plane in Florida in a geometric-print dress, as if the private jet were a pumpkin carriage transforming her from first lady into the perfect dinner party hostess.

Now, she appears to be relying on a sort of little black book of fashion classics, like skirt suits, black and hats, as battleground necessities — even if, here, she looks like the very earnest intern of a gondolier. In both of these recent appearances, her hands are balled softly into fists, as if she is steeling herself for the glare of the public. Whereas the Mar-a-Lago event was private, here she knew she couldn’t avoid the cameras or gawkers. The hat, which should look springy and free, looks like a helmet.

It is a departure from one of the last times she famously wore a hat, when French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife visited the United States in 2018. (She wore hats during visits to the United Kingdom, though most first ladies engage in that kind of sartorial diplomacy. Jill Biden, for example, wore fascinators to Queen Elizabeth II’s 2022 funeral and to King Charles III’s 2023 coronation.)

At the time, my colleague Robin Givhan described Melania’s enormous white hat, designed by her fashion consultant Hervé Pierre, as “a diva crown. A grand gesture of independence.” Its size and outlandishness grabbed the attention from the rest of the proceedings, including the French president and his wife. That insistence on style, even at the expense of propriety, was her calling card. And she seemed to embrace its significance, attempting to auction off the hat as well as a painting of her wearing it and an NFT in 2022. (The auction fell short of its $250,000 opening bid.)

The Gucci hat seems much more fraught. Melania has always had a habit of not quite reading the occasion — overdressing or dressing strictly where conviviality might be more appropriate. Here, she looked a little too professional, but you can also see her digging in her heels: This is what I need to wear.

The strictness of the jacket combined with the should-be lightness of the boater said: I’m trying to look professional and festive, but I need to protect myself. Gleaming in the Florida sun, it was like an attempt at an earthy tiara, gesturing at her resistance to dressing relatably, or even being relatable. Symbolizing her desire to control how she is looked at, and her inability to dress in a way that actually tells us what she wants us to know: her desire to be admired, and her outsize fury at criticism.

The last first lady to have a special relationship with hats was Jacqueline Kennedy, long said to be an inspiration of Melania’s, whose famous pillbox hats, made by Halston, epitomized her mix of youthfulness and polish. But Melania’s penchant for hats has more in common with her husband’s infamous MAGA hat, a crimson trucker hat emblazoned with a so-dumb-it’s-dangerous slogan. That hat is as quixotic as Melania’s. Is its message idiotic, or terrifying?

We are used to politicians’ clothes offering simplistic and straightforward messaging. Communicating via fashion is one of the most immediate tools a political figure has at their disposal, whether rolling up shirtsleeves to suggest a populist casualness, or dressing neutrally to draw the public’s gaze to your guest of honor. But Melania embodies the fracture of that powerful frankness: Her hat glittering in the sun, with nothing but a Cheshire grin peeking out beneath the brim, seems weighed down by the mixed messages inherent in her bizarre wardrobe choices. Heavy is the head that wears the boater.

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