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Why the Trump family always looks so ’80s

Melania and Ivanka Trump’s clothes call to mind The Donald’s heyday.

Melania Trump, Queen Elizabeth II, and Donald Trump in London on June 3.
Melania Trump, Queen Elizabeth II, and Donald Trump in London on June 3.
Samir Hussein/WireImage
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

When Melania and Ivanka Trump met with the queen, they looked straight out of Dynasty.

This isn’t a dig at their outfits — exaggerated ’80s clothing is actually having a moment right now, as it does every few fashion cycles. But it’s par for the course for the people, and in particular the women, in Donald Trump’s universe, who have embraced ’80s fashion for Trump’s entire political career.

On Monday, June 3, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived in London for his three-day official state visit, during which he will attend a formal state dinner at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth, meet with Prime Minister Theresa May and business leaders, and then attend a commemoration of D-Day on June 6.

When the Trumps arrived at Buckingham Palace for their official greeting and subsequent tour of Westminster Abbey, Melania wore a custom design from Dolce & Gabbana: a white long-sleeved dress, a crisp black belt and collar, and matching wide-brimmed hat designed by her stylist Hervé Pierre, drawing comparisons to both Audrey Hepburn’s racetrack ensemble in My Fair Lady and Joan Collins in Dynasty. Ivanka, meanwhile, chose a white puff-sleeve blazer with a peplum and a sparkling belt. She also wore a matching pleated skirt and a white fascinator, which is common for women during daytime events in British high society.

Ivanka Trump at Westminster Abbey on June 3.
AFP/Getty Images

Both of them were on-the-nose ’80s-inspired looks, and like everything these women wear, it was intentional. Melania and Ivanka Trump, and to a larger extent many of the people in Trump’s world, have embraced the over-the-top, excessively feminine (or, in the president’s case, masculine) fashions of the decade. And in a way, it makes sense: ’80s excess and the aesthetics of Trumpism have plenty in common.

The first lady has always been a fashion enigma

Melania Trump doesn’t say much, but she often communicates through her clothes. She is the type of first lady to survey hurricane damage while wearing stilettos and visit migrant children at the US-Mexico border in a jacket with the phrase “I really don’t care, do u?” scrawled on the back. She has worn symbols of European colonialism while on a visit to Africa and then reportedly expressed frustration that the press was focusing on her outfits.

Melania’s clothing is often the only place we see her express thoughts and opinions at all, and fashion diplomacy — the idea that one can transmit important messages via the things they wear — matters. Yet as Eliza Brooke notes for Vox, it’s extremely difficult to determine what, exactly, the first lady means when she wears anything, because she’s provided little context to work with. The day she wore the controversial Zara jacket, for instance, her publicist said that it had “no hidden message,” but after the president asserted on Twitter that it was a message to the media, Melania changed her tune, saying in an ABC interview that it was targeting her critics and the media.

Melania may not like it when the world questions the things she wears, but as the first lady, all her outfit choices are inherently political. Whereas first lady Michelle Obama tended to opt for up-and-coming designers with a mix of affordable pieces in fun colors as a way to message her approachable, down-to-earth personality, Melania sticks with couture European designers in silhouettes that accentuate her former-model figure. It’s garnered her many fans among people who prefer women to “dress like women,” as Trump requires his female staff to do. It’s clear that intense energy is spent on making Melania look fabulous — it’s the opposite of the “effortless” aesthetic that many women in 2019 strive for, which is part of what makes it so striking.

Why the women of the extended Trump universe love ’80s fashion

It’s not surprising, then, that much of Melania’s style is deeply rooted in the ’80s. It was an era of maximalism, where every fashion trend seemed to be big: teased hair, loud makeup, and giant shoulder pads that triangulated into super-cinched waists — which, removed from the context of the period, now look like costumes. Mainstream fashion in the ’80s was not about subtlety.

Neither are the Trumps. The president was famously described by the author Fran Lebowitz as “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” which is to say that Trump’s idea of taste and status has little of the subtlety we expect of truly wealthy people. He is flashy, he is gauche, he plasters his living spaces with shiny gold and lavish marble in a style the author Peter York called “dictator chic,” the design style that borrows from 18th-century French monarchs and covers it with macho decor and high-end brand names.

It’s an aesthetic closely associated with the 1980s writ large, wherein Reaganism and neoliberal economic policies allowed companies to get bigger and individuals to get richer regardless of the cost. In pop culture, wealthy people were revered as glamorous and aspirational, but also — in shows like Dynasty, Dallas, and the early reality show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — cartoonishly drenched in signifiers of their wealth. Watch a TV show or film from the ’80s and it’s hilariously clear who has money and who doesn’t (see: Pretty in Pink).

Trump was also impossible to avoid in the ’80s. It was the decade when the then-30-something Donald built his name as a real estate developer, tabloid staple, and co-author of The Art of the Deal. New York City itself was transforming into a playground for the uberrich, and Trump was one of the faces of that evolution — all while courting Page Six and putting his last name on everything he possibly could.

Donald Trump at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1987.
Joe McNally/Getty Images

The decade followed the second-wave feminist movement, and the pendulum of pop cultural trends had swung back in the opposite direction. As Susan Faludi explained in Backlash, women’s fashion in the ’80s emphasized girlish details like frills and ruffles and body-restricting items like corsets as a response to the rise of suiting and androgynous element of ’70s trends.

Princess Diana is an icon of the posh, moneyed ’80s woman: Her clothes were often accentuated with ultra-feminine details like puff sleeves and ruffles while exemplifying British prep (or specifically the Sloane Ranger look). It’s likely not an accident that Melania’s black-and-white dress drew comparisons to an outfit that Princess Diana wore on a visit to Washington, DC, in 1985.

The ladylike, unapologetically glamorous style pairs well with the women of the extended Trump universe, and with the expensive Italian suits and wide ties that Trump prefers. While menswear over the past decade has trended toward slimmer cuts, Trump’s suits are staunchly oversize, and his hair and makeup clings to the very ’80s notion that blond hair and an orange tan are all that’s needed to make a person look good.

As with much of what Melania and Ivanka wear, we’ll probably never know for sure what meaning they’d like us to glean from their clothing — instead, the fashion will speak for them. But for a woman who was once featured on the cover of a magazine pretending to eat a string of diamonds like spaghetti, the extravagant feminine fashions of the ’80s provide plenty of potential influences.

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