Over the past few weeks, there had been a lot of talk about the new American First Lady and who might or might not dress her for the inauguration. Of course, these stories use themselves up in the telling. Some of them were right — Ralph Lauren did design her very elegant coat for the swearing in, as he’d designed for first ladies before this one. Some of the guesses were flat out wrong — Karl Lagerfeld didn’t design her gown for the balls. Most of this talk was just that — and guessing gets a little boring.
It’s no one’s fault. We speculate because we’re excited. We want to guess what will happen because we can’t wait for the real thing to unfold. But here’s the thing: Speculation is never as interesting as what actually happens.
As the New York Times pointed out this week, Melania Trump surprised some folks with her sartorial choices. The first lady is still something of an unknown. Since she’d worn many foreign designers in the campaign, some expected more of the same. But she did something a little different.
The gown she’d wear — one she reportedly collaborated on — checked every political box. It was a nod to her adopted hometown of New York, to her husband’s new ‘buy American, Hire American’ push (the designer Herve Pierre immigrated from France more than 20 years ago). And despite Pierre’s work for top names such as Carolina Herrera, this was the first gown under his name. And so the gown also served as a launching pad for an unknown designer.
These choices alone are important. But so is something else: The gown was beautiful. This white sheath was incredibly elegant, sophisticated and fresh. Creating something beautiful is important. Beauty always helps people take notice.
What does any of this have to do with Marie Antoinette, I know you’re asking yourself. In fact, maybe you’re already annoyed. Heck, don’t you come here for escape? Not more of this election nonsense?
But darlings remember: everything eventually is about Marie Antoinette.
Our girl understood that fashion was important. And not because it creates visibility (which it certainly did — she became one of the first fashion plates and her styles were documented in all the publications of the time).
Through fashion, Marie Antoinette had a route to talk to the people. This was particularly important for a someone like our queen, who did not have an official role outside of bearing an heir. She did not speak to crowds and Salic Law prevented her from ruling.
But through fashion, she could have a conversation with those she’d never meet. For instance, when her husband finally got inoculated for small pox, a killer that had ravaged her family and killed King Louis XV, she celebrated with a very strategic headdress. This coiffure was inspired by the Greek god for medicine with a serpent twisted around an olive tree. Science and wisdom intertwined. A sun completed the tableau, a nod to Louis XVI, the Sun King, and the idea that his glory had returned. (Weber, 106) The message: with inoculation, France has embraced science and a new day is dawning. With the headdress, she could help save lives.
Of course, we know that for our girl, fashion and visibility is a complicated game. Not all Marie Antoinette’s choices were celebrated, as we well know. Some looks — like a coiffure with a massive boat designed to celebrate a military victory in a war the country couldn’t afford — seemed out of touch and frivolous. Still, the queen’s looks were always noticed and always mimicked, even by the revolutionaries who’d eventually depose her.
It’s not clear what kind of public role Melania Trump will play. Every first lady approaches the job a little differently. But whether we see her speaking frequently for a cause or taking a quieter role, her fashion will still be speaking volumes. Melania seems have a sense that this will be the case — and seems to be taking to this challenge carefully and strategically.
A former model, no one needs to explain to her that her clothes speak volumes or the importance of dressing well. She likely understands better than any first lady before what suits her best and how a look might read on television screens or magazines.
Still, people would understand if this woman who’d never sought a political life or to be a political wife chose not to infuse her sartorial choices with any sort of strategic meaning. She could have had a Dior gown. She didn’t have to collaborate on it. She didn’t have to find someone no one knew. It seemed to make sense if she decided not to make traditional political choices.
The fact she’s doing so anyway is incredibly interesting (to me, anyway). It takes a special effort to ensure that an ensemble is as beautiful and meaningful. It takes a special talent to build up new talent, be a patron, be surprising and set an example that others might want to follow.
In this way, she’s doing what Marie Antoinette always did with her fashion — use it celebrate beauty, new talent as she tried to talk to the people. It seems Melania is taking the details seriously, so far. That’s good. As our queen showed, fashion is not an easy game. Even with the best intentions, those little details can shape some big, big meanings.