We all have those friends who continue to live their lives online, sharing their brunch and July 4th cookouts, ignoring the disastrous backdrop of a global pandemic and nationwide protests. Count Melania and Ivanka Trump among such social media showboats.
Echoing Trump’s new strategy for handling the coronavirus crisis—“we need to live with it”—both women used the holiday weekend to parade some flashy clothing after months of austere dressing. Face masks, which Ivanka so performatively promoted in the past, were not to be found in photos taken from her western vacation.
Was Ivanka’s Heidi-on-the-range getup—a ruffled denim dress and milkmaid braids—tasteful to wear only days after law enforcement pepper sprayed a group of mostly Native American protesters peacefully marching against her father’s tacky Mt. Rushmore vanity project? Probably not, but at least she was having fun.
“Lots of love and memories as the sun sets on the 4th of July weekend!” Ivanka captioned a photo showing her cozying up to Jared Kushner, who fared well standing under a hot sun for a man whose overall aesthetic embodies a melted ice cream cone.
A hat is a must for any glamping adventure—as well as unlimited funds, during a time when over 11 percent of Americans are out of work. In one photo showing Ivanka mid-picnic, she wore a wide-brimmed black hat perfect to block the sun and match a statue of Christopher Columbus.
She also put on a straw fedora and Texas tuxedo for a ride—or, more accurately, photo opp—on top of a horse. From the looks of the poor animal’s defeated eyes, much like ours, he did not ask for any of this, either.
Unsurprisingly for someone whose last paying job was as an influencer, Ivanka’s photos seemed primed to tell the world that she is having a good time. In non-pandemic times, she has followed the narcissistic, if benign, impulse: be seen. But as the US’ coronavirus death tolls surges past 130,000, flaunting an unmasked, carefree weekend creating “memories” comes off as particularly callous.
What else could, should, Ivanka be doing, other than standing with her hands by her sides, a tight smile slapped on her face, wearing the clothes of an off-duty one percenter?
Melania, too, enjoyed a weekend of fantasy dressing, including wearing an all-white dress on a holiday synonymous with staining your clothes with barbecue sauce. On July 4, she attended the White House celebration cinching her waist with a $1,370 corset belt from Alaia. Practical it was not, but it kept her looking stiff and rigid, like one of her husband’s beloved Confederate statues.
A day before, Melania attended Mt. Rushmore fireworks in a white Alexander McQueen dress featuring black sketches as the pattern. Some on Twitter were quick to dub it the “Sharpie dress,” as it appeared as if Trump drew on the fabric in his signature handwriting. In reality, it was just your run-of-the-mill $2,400 Alexander McQueen number.
A bizarre Twitter rumor floated around that the drawings were made “by victims of child sex abuse to describe their feelings.” That is completely untrue—McQueen designer Sarah Burton used sketches from fashion design students to adorn the dress. Still, there was chatter online that the midi could be a nod to the recent arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell. This was not the case, no matter how loud QAnon supporters yelled about it online.
So goes the usual public perception about anything Melania wears—we will project our agendas onto the dress, and find symbolism in a few black squiggles screen-printed onto fabric.
The usual criticism of anything the First Lady wears hits differently during a worldwide tragedy, and of course there are more important things to worry about than what Ivanka or Melania decide to put on.
And yet, as always, the women send coded signals with their outfits. All is well, the playful denim dress Ivanka wore on vacation says. Back to normal, reads Melania’s cherry red lattice corset, perched on her hips like so many of her other go-to belts.
But things, of course, are not as they used to be. With her fanciful dressing this week, Ivanka is not just cosplaying a cowgirl. Melania is not just projecting patriotism. Both are trying to communicate live with it in how they dress. As the backlash to their outfits proves, many of us aren’t buying it. And we’re not that interested in living with it either.