MELANIA Trump has taken a rare shot at the public, hitting out critics of her recent wardrobe choices.
But her defence has led to even more criticism for the First Lady.
Defending her controversial outfits on a recent Africa trip, the 48-year-old posted a video broadcast from Egypt saying: “I want to talk about my trip, and not what I wear. That’s very important what we do, what we’re doing with US aid, what I do with my initiatives.
“I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.”
.@FLOTUS Melania Trump: “I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.” pic.twitter.com/X3k7MqhYmO
— The Hill (@thehill) October 7, 2018
The First Lady’s defence followed criticism she faced from news outlets and social media users during a trip to Nairobi in Africa last week, after she wore a white pith helmet, which has links to Africa’s colonisers.
“It was the headgear that attracted most attention,” The Guardian noted. “Pith helmets – so-called because they are made of the material sholapith – were worn by European explorers and imperial administrators in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East in the 19th century before being adopted by military officers, rapidly becoming a symbol of status – and oppression.”
Across social media, her outfits drew comparisons from Dr Rene Emile Belloq, the villain from Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark, to Michael Jackson in his Smooth Criminal video.
Others criticised her for donning high-end luxury European brands instead of supporting local African designers on her trip.
Accusations against Mrs Trump of reinforcing colonialist attitudes prompted a #FLOTUSInAfricaBingo hashtag — where social media users called out the tone-deaf stereotypical things travellers do in Africa:
Melania Trump wearing a pith helmet on her trip to “Africa” is more than a silly sartorial choice. It’s a reflection of her outdated understanding of Africa. (Also, she was photographed in safari attire multiple times on this trip.) #FLOTUSinAfricaBingo https://t.co/aCnkOnPBF8
— kim yi dionne (@dadakim) October 5, 2018
Melania completes the stereotype trifecta–elephants, orphans and even the pith helmet…..#FLOTUSinAfrica2018 @africasacountry @AFP @AP pic.twitter.com/TkgFb3w4yY
— Matt Carotenuto (@matt_carotenuto) October 5, 2018
Melania: What should I wear on my Africa trip to pay tribute to the culture and history of my hosts?
WH staff: A pith helmet. Definitely a pith helmet. https://t.co/JSmNkWM2RF
— Owen Barder (@owenbarder) October 5, 2018
Melania Trump’s outfits scream, “I watched OUT OF AFRICA the night before”. #MelaniaTrump #MelaniaInKenya #FLOTUSinAfricaBingo #FLOTUSinAfrica2018 pic.twitter.com/2yvyR2Igf4
— Meja|梅贾 (@75Meja) October 6, 2018
University of California political science professor Kim Yi Dionne, who started the hashtag, said Ms Trump reinforced colonial attitudes with her clothing choices.
“Her attire is a signal of her understanding of what Africa is in 2018. It’s tired and it’s old and it’s inaccurate,” Dr Dionne told The New York Times.
But fashion choices aside, the hit-back also prompted a genuine question: What does Melania Trump actually do?
The First Lady’s signature #BeBest campaign was deemed confusing at best. Its pledge to make cyberbullying one of her main aims prompted derision from the public, given her husband’s notorious Twitter account and history of attacking people online.
Critics also noted the campaign was largely taken from the one that existed under Barack Obama, and has not been well promoted since.
Even in the lead up to the 2016 election and afterwards, Ms Trump was largely hidden in the background, while Mr Trump’s eldest daughter Ivanka was dubbed the “unofficial First Lady”.
When asked in Africa for her thoughts on the sexual assault case against Brett Kavanaugh, who her husband picked for the Supreme Court, she said little more than she is “against any kind of abuse or violence”.
She also denied January reports that he referred to Haiti and African nations as “s**thole countries”.
Her defensive statement requesting people to stop focusing on her outfits has begged the question — what else has the First Lady give us to focus on?
The latest fashion faux pas drawing attention isn’t an isolated incident. In June, Ms Trump was slammed globally for wearing a khaki Zara coat with the words “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” while visiting children displaced by America’s immigration crisis.
At the time, the President was being widely criticised for maintaining a policy that separated children from their parents after they were detained at the US border.
A jacket blaring those words, in that context, was seen as deliberate, tone-deaf and complicit.
For what it’s worth, Mrs Trump is hardly the First Lady to have her outfits scrutinised.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s clothing choices were frequently a pop culture talking point. But she was good at fashion diplomacy; she knew what to wear and to which occasions, and she supported local designers.
“She made something of an art out of pairing designers with countries during state dinners or trips,” The New York Times wrote of Ms Obama last year.
She wore clothes by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan to a state dinner in India, and dressed in Tom Ford’s designs, who was then based in London, when she dined with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
“Mrs Obama used her leverage and visibility not only to raise the profile of a host of local designers… but also as argument against isolationism and in support of allies across the world,” the report said.
Mrs Trump, by comparison, stuck to high-end American and European luxury labels on her Africa trip, donning designs by Ralph Lauren, Chanel and Hervé Pierre.
She’s right though. In an ideal world, the focus would be on the First Lady’s initiatives and what she said and did, rather than what she was wearing.
And yet, in that ideal world, the First Lady would actually have something to say.