Melania Trump vs. Bill Clinton: Why the Way a First Spouse Dresses Really Matters


At this point, it's relatively safe to assume that either Melania Trump or Bill Clinton will be our next first lady or first gentleman, respectively — and the two couldn't dress any more differently. 

There's Trump, with her effortless perfectionism, posing herself as an impressive aspirational figure for anyone who's not quite as designer-level stylish — which is to say, not as rich as she is. Then, there's Clinton, trying so very hard to remain in the background and not draw too much attention to himself, opting for modest tailored suits and muted polos. 

Read more: What Melania Trump's Glamorous Style Could Mean in the White House

To judge what a person is like based on their clothing is reductive, but the way a first spouse dresses matters in the same way that how a presidential candidate dresses matters. Is someone trying to relate to the people and dress casually? Is someone wearing large clothing to appear more powerful? Is someone trying to pose as more of a fashion icon than a political figure? All types of messages (subconscious or otherwise) can come from how a person dresses — for public figures, those messages make an impact. 

So, what messages are Trump and Clinton really sending, and what can that tell us about the type of first spouse each of them would be? 

Melania Trump and the power of consistency

John Moore/Getty Images

Since she's not too hot on talking politics, Trump's most valuable characteristic may very well be her taste. She is classic. She is cool. She is reserved. She opts for a regular cycle of whites and blacks and blues and reds. She wears long coats over dresses. She wears skirts with jackets. The way she dresses is generally predictable, while her husband's actions remain entirely not.

The message she's sending now is that as first lady, she'd always appear elegant. Consistently so. Her makeup would be pristine. Her hair would fall in large flowy ringlets. Everyone could count on her to be in a sleek dress or expensive coat. Her looks were once her profession, after all, so she knows not to disappoint. 

"The looks are studiously low-key and uninteresting, not because they are unattractive clothes but because the woman wearing them — the model — has not enlivened them with her individual personality," the Washington Post's Robin Givhan wrote. "What is her personality? The woman who has counseled her husband — the candidate — to be more presidential, seems self-consciously aiming to be very 'first lady.'" 

Evan Agostini/AP

However, Trump's ride to becoming first lady hasn't been so typical. For starters, her past includes professional modeling, and with those credentials in mind, she's been able to avoid something that nearly every single prospective first lady has faced: fashion criticism. First ladies have historically been the target of people waiting ever-so-patiently to pounce on a style misstep. Think Michelle Obama's ruffled skirt or Hillary Clinton's makeup-free face.

Because most first ladies aren't politicians, the press likens them more to female public figures or celebrities, who are seen as fair game to taunt.

It would seem like Melania Trump, who already comes with a model's reputation, has even more to prove. But miraculously, she has been able to avoid the cycle of scrutiny by being consistent in her glamour. She's handled red carpet commenters and judges already, so really, this level of fame has naturally found a way to her wardrobe, with her picking mostly classic, very expensive pieces that please the eye. As the Telegraph mused, "Her countenance so far remains serious, her taste seemingly on-point in so far as a woman who lives in a gilded penthouse complete with marble cherub adornment, Rococo recliners, crystal chandeliers and friezes in gold relief can maintain." Clearly, she is in control of how she looks, and that alone can give us a hint as to what sort of first lady she'd be. 

As Donald Trump's former political adviser, Roger Stone, told the Washington Post, "She would be the most glamorous first lady since Jackie Kennedy." Already, headlines like "Is Melania Trump the next Jackie Kennedy?" exist. And given her track record so far, he's not completely wrong. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, too, was part of a very wealthy family and took pride in designer clothes, befriending high-end designers like Oleg Cassini. Even Trump herself has voiced interest in being a "traditional," first lady, like Kennedy Onassis, and focusing on the home rather than politics. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Partly because of that of course, as Mic has reported before, Trump would be the antithesis of Michelle Obama. Throughout her possible years in the White House, she'd likely never peruse a single rack at places like J.Crew and H&M, instead opting to stick to her few favorite silhouettes at events like State Dinners. Rather than appealing to the masses by going to Target (like Michelle Obama famously loves to do), she'd proudly revel in the fact that her shoes are Louboutins and her bags are Chanel. And is there anything wrong with that? No, not really. It's just Trump's lifestyle. 

However, one of the things about political dressing is that it should never be a distraction from the speech or politician themselves, and Trump is subverting that idea entirely. One cannot help but at least look at a woman like Trump because of the way she wears clothes. She has the body of an actual British GQ model (tall, thin and large-chested) and expensive, luxury taste, so she does stand in stark contrast to many politicians around her. In that case, she is already unpredictable and that's probably exactly how she wants you to think of her. 

Bill Clinton and the power of quiet dressing

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Like Trump, Clinton isn't trying to cause a stir — but for other reasons. He's been president. He's had his headlines. He's had his scandals. Now, it's his wife's turn, and he's trying to become more of a background figure, separating his persona from hers. 

His wardrobe right now isn't that of a red carpet star like Trump, but of a regular (still quite wealthy) politician, with plenty of blue suits and polo T-shirts. He is casual when he can be, like in a visit to Puerto Rico, and more formal at other times, like at Hillary Clinton's New York primary victory speech

As the Washington Post noted, "Bill Clinton is sorting out what it means to wear the uniform of power but not possess it. He is settling into the role of backup performer — that silent, onstage partner whose gaze must always be loving and engaged — no matter how familiar those applause lines may be." 

And how is he doing that most cleverly? With his attire. Like many men in the political eye, fashion is but a uniform. One or two blue, tan, brown or black suits, with a political pin piercing one lapel. One or two white or blue button-downs. The way he's dressing now is far more "first lady-y" than Melania Trump, calling no attention to his appearance what so ever. And as a man, that's far easier to do than if he were, say, a woman. 

James Nord/AP

According to how he dresses, he's most closely drawing parallels to first ladies like Laura Bush, who made little to no waves as first lady for eight years. She wore skirt suits in a range of normal colors. She wore her fair share of figure-flattering dresses. Having been a teacher and librarian, she understood the level of professionalism she needed to uphold. And with Bill Clinton already serving as an American president, he knows this all too well as well. 

His message to the public? Don't worry about me. I'm letting her lead. For some, it's a good thing that he's taking a step back. For others, not so much

Although he is regularly making speeches for Hillary Clinton — something Melania Trump is certainly not doing for her spouse — he is relying on his wardrobe and the possible title of "first gentleman" to help him differentiate himself from his wife. Although, the title of "first gentleman" may be more important than he thinks. Since he'd be our first first gentleman, he'd be setting the standard for how one would act in the future. Would he pick out the place settings? (He apparently doesn't want to.) Would he become a fashion icon? Would people look at his fashion at all?

Those answers would all be entirely up to him, and because of that, he does have an interesting amount of power in this position. Similarly to his wife's possibly being the first woman president, as the first first gentleman, he'd be making history. 

So how will this all work out in November? Only time will tell. What we can predict, though, is that the White House will be an entirely different place than it is now come January.