The day began with a hat. It ended with the hat, too. Not literally, but nostalgically. Over the course of 12 hours, no Cézanne at the National Gallery, no forest of cherry blossom branches, no Clinton or Bush china, no goat cheese gateau, not even Chanel haute couture could compare to that magnificent halo of pure white light perched atop first lady Melania Trump’s perfectly groomed head. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.
That hat, broad-brimmed with a high, blocked crown announced the first lady’s presence as boldly and theatrically as a brigade of trumpeters. It was the bright white hat of a gladiator worn on an overcast day, a kind of glamorous public shield when sunglasses would not do at all. That hat was a force field that staved off folks, the wrong folks, from getting too close.
It was a diva crown. A grand gesture of independence. A church hat. The Lord is my shepherd. Deliver us from evil. Amen.
Mrs. Trump began her Tuesday in the hat when she greeted French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte at the State Arrival ceremony on the South Lawn. She stood erect on her stiletto heels next to President Donald Trump who wore a dark overcoat, which was neatly buttoned, and a blue-and-white striped tie.
The first lady’s hat was commissioned by French-born Hervé Pierre, the freshly minted American citizen who designed her inaugural gown and now serves as her fashion consultant. It was made in New York using the same fabric as her suit, created by the American designer Michael Kors, which means the hat was not a last-minute styling flourish. It was planned. And it was a statement.
Her white, knee-length pencil skirt was topped with an asymmetrical jacket that was belted at the waist. The entire ensemble was formal and reserved and rigorously tailored. It was very much in keeping with her signature silhouette. She wore a similarly cut Kors suit to her husband’s first address to a joint session of Congress in March 2017 and again on a visit to Israel a couple months later.
But as a matter of diplomatic symbolism, this white suit with the custom-made matching chapeau was all-American with a dollop of French panache.
For the evening’s state dinner, the first for the Trump White House, she wore a black Chantilly lace, Chanel haute couture gown. It was hand-painted with silver and embroidered with crystals and sequins. Glittering straps followed the dress as it dipped to a low, open back. The gown was a dramatic and unabashed celebration of French fashion as a contemporary, global and cultural phenomenon, as well as a craft rooted in history and tradition. Chanel is one of a handful of companies with a vigorous haute couture business, which emphasizes handmade, highly personalized garments that can be priced beyond $100,000. (Taxpayers do not pay for the first lady’s wardrobe.)
Haute couture is a rarefied craft, specific to France, where a consortium governs how the term is used and defined. Over the years, Chanel has purchased several French workshops that have for decades contributed specialized embroidery and featherwork to haute couture collections. Those financial investments have essentially saved this Old World craftsmanship from extinction. The dress was a nod to both the past and the present, to craft and commerce, and to old-fashioned extravagance.
President Trump was wearing a classic tuxedo that, like most of his suits, looked too big for his frame. The trousers were akin to palazzo pants, and no, he did not button his jacket. President Macron wore a tuxedo that fit. And Brigitte Macron wore Louis Vuitton, a favorite brand of hers. The ivory-colored gown was embellished with metallic gold embroidery. One of the few nongovernmental guests at the intimate dinner was Bernard Arnault, the fashion tycoon who controls LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and holds the title of richest man in France. He was one of the moguls who paid an early homage to then-President-elect Trump with a visit to Trump Tower, ostensibly to discuss expanding production in the United States.
The evening, as is so often the case, was dominated by generously proportioned tuxedos and dark dresses. The gowns were perfectly lovely but a bit of a snooze, although the off-the-shoulder black lace dress worn by Nancy Kissinger was a study in classic elegance.
There were a few splashes of color and fashion brio. Ivanka Trump arrived wearing a pale pink tulle gown with polka dots and floral embellishments that appeared to be by Rodarte, an American label that now debuts its collections in Paris. And Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, sparkled in a dramatic silver Roberto Cavalli gown – an Italian brand, but no matter – it was the glamour that counted.
The American fashion industry has had a complicated relationship with Mrs. Trump, or more precisely with her husband’s administration. Before the couple even entered the White House, multiple American designers had announced they would not actively work with her to create a public wardrobe. She has nonetheless occasionally worn American brands, often simply purchasing them at retail and wearing them on public occasions. But she has seemed more enthusiastic in her affection for styles from the Italian brand Dolce & Gabbana or France’s Dior.
To some degree, those European labels may appeal to a style sense that tilts toward old-school formality. On the Macrons’ first night in Washington, the Trumps hosted them for an intimate dinner at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washingon, with its views of the Potomac River. This dinner wasn’t black tie, but it was a special occasion. Mrs. Trump was dressed – perhaps overdressed, some might say – in black heels, a black sheath and a black Givenchy tuxedo cape.
On these official occasions, the first lady sometimes appears to be dressing for a fashion-shoot version of the event – a kind of heightened reality of an already rather surreal circumstance. But there is also the sense that she is stubbornly and confidently dressing up and refusing to relax into today’s accepted decorum. The result is that she sometimes seems to have a tin ear for empathetic dressing. And sometimes, she wears a hat which, for women, long ago ceased being about fashion in this country and became more of an affectation, whether it be the religiosity of Sunday church service or the self-conscious flamboyance of the Kentucky Derby.