NEW YORK - Melania Trump just gave the world a lesson in the ambiguity of clothing as a language — even when it contains literal words.
On Thursday, the U.S. first lady boarded a plane wearing an olive-green Zara jacket with graffiti-style writing on the back that read “I really don’t care do U?” The former fashion model understands the substance of style, and she undoubtedly knew that her back would be particularly visible as she mounted the airplane’s steps.
So why, on the way to visit a shelter for migrant children separated from their parents at the Texas-Mexico border, would she wear such a thing?
It’s just a jacket. Her clothing choice was completely meaningless. That was her spokeswoman’s take on it. But, as many people noted, she’s not in the habit of wearing cheap fast fashion, so why pick this to wear?
She doesn’t give a damn about immigrant children. The un-ironic reading was offered by critics such as CNN’s Kirsten Powers, who called her “the Marie Antoinette of this administration.” The problem with this theory is that the immigrant first lady, who appears to be a devoted mother, had previously gone out of her way to say she “hates to see children separated from their families.”
It’s about “fake news.” Employing his usual spin, U.S. President Donald Trump cast the jacket as a media critique. It’s conceivable that she meant that, unlike her media-obsessed husband, she doesn’t care about press coverage. But, if so, why go on a high-profile trip in the midst of a raging controversy wearing a jacket with anything written on it?
Her husband made her wear it. I can’t remember where I saw this theory, which exemplifies the “Melania is under his thumb” view. Do you really think Trump checks Zara inventories and then dictates clothing choices to his wife? Seriously?
She doesn’t care what you think of her. That might very well be true, but does she need a jacket to get that point across?
It’s about the “Do u?” Perhaps the point of the jacket is the final question.
It’s about her husband. Melania certainly doesn’t seem to feel obligated to fulfill the traditional role of a first lady, which is first and foremost to make her husband look good. Although she shone at the first state dinner, for French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, and occasionally issues an anti-bullying statement, she’s mostly invisible. And her public statements expressing motherly concerns about the welfare of children often make her husband look bad. Maybe the jacket was an act of rebellion. But what doesn’t she care about?
In the end, we simply don’t know. The jacket demonstrates a consistent truth about Melania Trump: She is an enigma onto whom people project their pre-existing beliefs, hopes and fears. In that sense, she is still a professional model. She looks good in clothes and lets the audience imagine whatever meanings they prefer.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour.”