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Decoding Melania Trump starts with her clothing

The first lady is a mystery. That’s why we try to figure her out through her style.

Melania Trump gets into a car at the airport.
Melania Trump wears the controversial “I don’t really care, do u?” jacket.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike her Twitter-happy husband, Melania Trump maintains a relatively quiet life in the public eye. Her personal opinions are opaque, as were her whereabouts for most of May, when she spent weeks laying low after being treated for a “benign kidney condition,” prompting a number of conspiracy theories about her absence.

The first lady is something of a mystery to the American people. Despite — or more likely, because of — that disconnect, the public has on numerous occasions attempted to figure her out by the only means available: her clothing.

The most recent example of this happened this week, when she wore a Zara jacket printed with the words “I don’t really care, do u?” while en route to visit migrant children at the US-Mexico border. In the middle of a crisis over the Trump administration’s family separation policy, it seemed impossible that not a single person on her team — no stylist, PR person, or aide — had questioned the harsh implications of that message.

But as with many things Melania-related, it was hard to say for sure what she meant by wearing it. Though government officials and their family members often use clothing to send messages, reading those signals is a real challenge when it comes to Melania, simply because she’s provided so little context to work with.

In reality, people’s interest in figuring out what “I don’t really care, do u?” means likely isn’t just about understanding the first lady. It’s also about making sense of a relentlessly chaotic administration that’s left many Americans with a sense of ongoing instability. It was only days before President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of immigrant families that he said “you can’t do it through an executive order.”

The outfit-decoding machine has gone into high gear multiple times before, including even before Trump got into office. Every time, we wonder if Melania is trying to send us a message with her clothes. And every time, we’re left with the same answer: We just don’t know for certain.

October 2016: the pussy bow shirt

Melania Trump stands on the sidelines of the debate wearing a hot pink blouse.
Melania Trump arrives at the second presidential debate.
Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images

What she wore: A pink “pussy bow” blouse by Gucci to the second presidential election debate in October 2016.

What people thought it meant: A mere two days before the debate, the Washington Post surfaced a now-infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which Donald Trump bragged about using his fame to “do anything” to women, including “grab them by the pussy.” The video incited a media firestorm that was far from over by the time of the second debate. Melania’s decision to wear a hot pink blouse with a bow at the throat — a style, yes, known as a “pussy bow” — seemed to many as though she was trolling her husband’s detractors.

Was she? A campaign spokesperson denied that Melania was sending any message with her shirt.

“Aside from the irony surrounding the name of the neckline, that style of blouse has other layers of meaning,” a reporter for CNBC wrote at the time. “It rose to popularity at a time when many women were entering the work force and were looking to find a style of dress that conveyed the seriousness of a suit with a nod to femininity.”

August 2017: stilettos in Texas

The two walk to a waiting helicopter, Melania wearing black pants, an army green jacket, and black stilettos.
Melania and Donald Trump head off to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Melania wears green pants, a shirt rolled at the sleeves, and green Converse.
Donald and Melania Trump visit Houston.
Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

What she wore: Stilettos while boarding Air Force One to visit Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

What people thought it meant: Once again, the commentary here didn’t focus so much on Melania’s sartorial intention as on her apparent lack of thought about how it might look to head off to a flooded, devastated area in highly impractical shoes. Though the first lady spent much of her trip to Houston in Converse, a “Texas” baseball cap, and a button-down shirt rolled up at the sleeves, her stilettos are what grabbed headlines.

“When is a shoe not just a shoe?” wrote New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman. “When it is a pair of very high, needle-thin heels worn by the first lady of the United States on her way to the site of a natural disaster. It becomes a symbol for what many see as the disconnect between the Trump administration and reality; another example of the way in which this president and his family continue to define ‘appropriate’ their own way; and an excuse for partisan name-calling.”

January 2018: the State of the Union white suit

Melania Trump stands while the crowd applauds her.
Melania Trump at the 2018 State of the Union address.
Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

What she wore: A white Christian Dior pantsuit at the 2018 State of the Union address.

What people thought it meant: Of Melania’s outfits that have drawn speculation, none have had as many possible meanings as this one. For its symbolism as the color of the suffragette movement, wearing white became a recurring theme throughout Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign: She wore a white pantsuit to accept her party’s nomination, women wore white to the polls on election day, and even on the day of Trump’s inauguration, the former secretary of state was there, dressed in white again.

So a white pantsuit from Melania was interesting.

As the Times’s Friedman expertly laid out, it may have been a veiled diss aimed at her husband, just weeks after revelations about Trump’s affair with the porn actress Stormy Daniels. Melania may have worn white to stand out against the democratic congresswomen who wore black to the State of the Union out of solidarity with the Time’s Up and #MeToo movement. It also might have been a message of solidarity with GOP congresswomen, who were wearing red, white, and blue that night.

June 2018: the “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket

Melania Trump gets into a car, exposing the back of her jacket.
Melania Trump departs for a visit to the US-Mexico border.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

What she wore: A $39 Zara jacket with graffiti-like paint on the back reading, “I really don’t care, do u?” while on the way to visit facilities housing migrant children at the Texas-Mexico border in June 2018.

What people thought it meant: For a first lady who doesn’t say much, this jacket seemed to communicate a lot. In the preceding days, the public outcry over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating families caught crossing the US border illegally had reached a fever pitch, with critics calling it “immoral,” “inhumane,” “cruel,” and “un-American.” In light of that, many people were shocked that Melania Trump chose a jacket with a literal declaration of apathy printed on the back, interpreting it as a statement about the family separation crisis.

Though a spokesperson for the first lady said that the jacket was not intended to communicate a particular message, the president felt otherwise.

Trump may just have been using the opportunity to air his own grievances against the media. But he also fanned the flames of the interest in detangling the meaning behind his wife’s clothing, affirming that there very much is something to see here.