Like a lot of things about the fast-approaching Trump administration, it’s hard to tell what role the first lady will play in it, or even who will perform the functions traditionally allocated to the president’s wife. But last week, Melania Trump’s longtime makeup artist Nicole Bryl gave an interview to Us magazine that suggests Trump is beginning to consider the space she wants to create for herself in the White House, and the conditions under which Trump wants her beauty team to work. Though the prospect of a White House glam room has come in for a certain amount of derision, Bryl’s explanation of the time and industry it takes to create Trump’s look is actually a bit of valuable transparency. Beauty and style aren’t ephemeral qualities that descend effortlessly from the heavens: They’re the result of work, and the standards American women are expected to meet require the labor of trained professionals.
The question isn’t whether Melania Trump should have the space and resources she needs to look how she wants. First ladies have had professionals help them for years, and if they want that assistance, they should have it. Presidential spouses are some of the most-scrutinized women on the planet, and criticisms of how they look and dress that might otherwise be considered sexist nonsense can be re-purposed and deployed as political weapons. The object of real curiosity ought to be how Melania Trump intends to deploy her sense of glamour and style, and to what ends.
The first lady’s self-presentation has generally been used to communicate something larger than the idea that the president did well for himself.
Jacqueline Kennedy deployed her personal elegance to bolster her credentials as a preservation advocate. Her famous televised White House tour wasn’t just a display of her personal taste; it was a chance for her to explain her vision for the official residence as a place that, like Colombia’s presidential palace, that “has all the history of that place in it.” Kennedy used the tour to explain a law she’d pushed for designating the White House as a museum so the institution could have a curator, and acquisitions and gifts would be added to the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and to introduce Americans to the restoration work she’d brought in-house. Her sense of aesthetics and ceremony informed Kennedy’s sense of what the American public needed from her husband’s funeral after he was assassinated. And after Kennedy left the White House, she fought to preserve New York City’s Grand Central Station. A strong aesthetic vision, it turns out, can determine the shape of a skyline in addition to popularizing the pillbox hat.
President Barack Obama sold himself as a candidate in part on the idea that his international upbringing and experiences gave him unique insight into both world affairs and the unique nature of the American promise. During her eight years in the White House, Michelle Obama often made stylistic choices that reflected both that global outlook and a sharp attention to the history of presidential fashion, wearing dresses by Naeem Khan, Prabal Gurung and Jason Wu, among others.