Melania Trump embarked on her first solo trip as first lady last week: a five-day tour of Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, and Egypt.
This excursion was standard first lady diplomacy — a way of encouraging friendly relations between the US and the countries hosting Melania and her entourage. It was also an opportunity to promote the first lady’s “Be Best” campaign, which focuses on children’s health and well-being.
Her visit featured visits to children’s hospitals and schools, teas with foreign first ladies, and a photo op at a sanctuary for orphaned baby elephants — typical fare for a trip of this kind. But the White House’s best efforts to use Melania to soften her husband’s image may have been overshadowed by the wardrobe she packed to do so.
Throughout the week, many of the first lady’s outfits featured muted fabrics and large, utilitarian pockets, a look that can best be described as a cross between safari chic and colonialist couture.
During a Wednesday visit to Cape Coast Castle, a fort on the Ghanaian coast from which hundreds of thousands of kidnapped Africans were shipped to the Americas as slaves, Melania wore a khaki jacket and linen pants that vaguely resembled military fatigues. She wore a similarly colored dress the following day during her trip to Malawi.
Her highly photographed Kenyan safari on Friday featured the week’s most controversial outfit: an Out of Africa-esque getup complete with calf-high safari boots and a pith helmet, headgear that was worn by British explorers and colonial administrators in Africa and has endured as a longstanding symbol of European colonial rule in the continent.
On Saturday, Twitter users compared Melania’s Egypt outfit — a Ralph Lauren jacket, wide-leg pants, and a Chanel blouse — to the clothing worn by the villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark, who was a Nazi sympathizer.
Kate Bennett, a CNN White House correspondent who covers the first lady, said Melania’s “menswear-inspired” Egypt outfit sent a clear message that “women are equal.” Other reporters have written off the ensembles as standard American-tourist-in-Africa garb. “Tourists in Africa, especially Americans, have come to be expected to show up in jungle-ready, beige catalogue-ordered safari gear,” the Washington Post’s Africa bureau chief Max Bearak wrote about the pith helmet. (It’s worth noting that when Michelle Obama visited Liberia, for example, she wore a colorful printed dress that resembled her usual Washington wardrobe. Hillary Clinton wore one of her trademark suits during a 1997 visit to South Africa.)
As worn by Melania Trump, these outfits are a reminder of the Trump administration’s outdated, monolithic view of the African continent and its people. Instead of eclipsing Trump’s numerous Africa-related controversies, Melania’s trip to the continent may have brought them back to the forefront.
During Melania’s Thursday visit to Malawi, Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs tweeted that a small number of protesters greeted the first lady with signs referring to President Donald Trump’s comments about African nations being “shithole countries.”
A first lady’s sartorial choices are inherently political
The first lady’s press pool reported that she “seemed a bit irritated” with all the attention being paid to her clothing, particularly the pith helmet. “You know what? We just completed an amazing trip,” Melania reportedly said. “I want to talk about my trip and not what I wear. That’s very important, what I do, what we’re doing with USAID, my initiatives, and I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.”
But given Melania’s silence on most issues — including those that affect African countries directly — it may be difficult to ignore the messages her clothing is sending.
According to Charlene Lau, a fashion historian who has previously taught at Parsons School of Design, there are several ways to read Melania’s safari wardrobe. “It is possible that inspiration for such dress is gleaned from mass stereotyping and superficial ideas of [African] nationhood,” she said in an email. “While this may be the case, these notions do have roots in colonialism, spread through the cultural imagination via literature, film, music and the visual arts.”
Other critics say that the first lady’s Africa trip didn’t accomplish much at all. Lauren Wright, the author of On Behalf of the President and a politics lecturer at Princeton University, told the Washington Post that Melania could have chosen to speak out against her husband’s derogatory comments about Africa and Africans. “What would help would be is if she directly addressed her husband’s comments about the continent,” Wright said, but Melania didn’t.
Boubacar N’Diaye, professor of Africana studies at the College of Wooster, told the Post that Melania’s Africa trip included all the activities first ladies usually do while abroad, but that it can’t overshadow her husband’s policies. “She came, like many US first ladies, to hold children, to say the right thing — and she has done that,” said N’Diaye. “I’m sure in her heart she means those things — but that is very different from real policies that the government cares about.”
This, of course, isn’t the first time Melania’s clothing has stirred controversy. There was the time she wore a Gucci “pussy bow” blouse to a presidential debate just days after the Washington Post reported on her husband’s now-infamous comments about grabbing women “by the pussy.”
In May 2017, she was called out for wearing a $51,000 Dolce & Gabbana jacket — which cost just a few thousand dollars less than the average American family’s annual income — while hobnobbing with foreign leaders’ spouses during the G7 summit in Sicily. A few months after that, she wore a bomber jacket and a highly impractical pair of stilettos to visit hurricane-ravaged Houston.
And, of course, there was the time Melania donned a $39 Zara jacket that had “I really don’t care, do u?” written on the back during a visit to the US-Mexico border in the middle of the summer, during the height of the family separation crisis.
After the Zara jacket debacle, her spokesperson Stephanie Grisham suggested that reporters are reading too much into Melania’s aesthetic choices. “It’s just a jacket,” Grisham told reporters. “There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope this isn’t what the media is going to choose to focus on.”
Lau noted that it’s highly implausible someone as high-profile as a first lady would get dressed without thinking about the implications of her outfit, especially while on a diplomatic trip. “There’s no doubt that Melania Trump and her team put great thought into her style, no matter what the event,” Lau said. “The question is, does she or her stylist understand the actual cultural context for her dress, or is there a gap between perception and reality?”
We may not know what Melania and her team were going for when they selected her wardrobe for this trip, but it’s impossible to look at a white woman wearing a pith helmet while on an African safari and ignore the colonial undertones — especially when that woman’s husband is in charge of an administration whose policies actively harm those from African nations.