Comment: Is Melania’s auction selling fashion or history?

A hat worn by the First Lady — and an NFT of her in it — are being auctioned. Is it really hers to sell?

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

In a single online auction, Melania Trump devalued what ostensibly accounts for the entirety of her legacy as first lady. She divested herself of fashion. She put her hat up for auction.

If there was one thing that Melania Trump seemed attentive to during her time in the White House, it was the role that fashion played in defining her image. Her personal style — strong shoulders, cinched waist, stilettos — was more fully conceived than her signature platform, “Be Best.” She wasn’t a first lady who was fully committed to selecting her clothes with an eye toward graciousness and diplomacy. She was just as likely to wear the Italian brand Dolce & Gabbana to a turkey pardoning at the White House as she was to wear British designer Stella McCartney’s jumpsuit on an official visit to Saudi Arabia. And, of course, she wore that coat. “I really don’t care, do u?” Fashion wasn’t a tool for good, but still, it was what she claimed as her own.

Trump always played to the cameras. Hers was a glib, fashion shoot interpretation of style, one that often led to beautiful photographs but a questionable grasp of history and politics. This was evidenced by her choice of a Colonial-era pith helmet while touring Nairobi National Park in Kenya in 2018. And she wore a sand-colored ensemble with a coordinating fedora while posing by the Giza pyramids in Egypt; a look that called to mind the colonizers of “Out of Africa” and various villains in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Although Trump’s clothing choices might have been symbolically sketchy, they almost always had luxury bona fides. Trump had no qualms about dressing almost exclusively from the upper floors of department stores. She wasn’t using fashion to be accessible or relatable, but to be photogenic. The narrative of her time in the East Wing is most vividly communicated in pictures rather than words.

Fashion was the pedestal upon which she stood.

And then she sold that pedestal right out from under herself. She did it online on her own website where she promised that part of the proceeds — not all, but part — would go to help children in foster care learn something vague and unspecified about computers and technology. She took the bids in cryptocurrency, which only added to the financial murk of the entire transaction. The centerpiece of the lot was the white hat designed by Hervé Pierre that she wore during the South Lawn arrival ceremony for French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, when the White House hosted them for a state visit in 2018. It was one of the rare occasions for which Trump seemed to dress with a diplomatic vision in mind. Her white suit was by Michael Kors and she’d paired it with indigo Christian Louboutin heels with their distinctive red sole. The result was a subtle red, white and blue combination that nodded to both the American flag and the French one.

The hat was striking. It was big and dramatic and frankly its mere existence was notable because no one wears hats much these days unless they are headed to worship service or playing dress-up at the Kentucky Derby. It was a nice bit of millinery, but more than that, it was historic because it was worn as part of her wardrobe for the administration’s first state dinner. So in many ways, it was a hat that belonged to the American people. Taxpayer dollars didn’t purchase it, but it was part of a formal ceremony during which our country welcomed another and she was our representative. And then it was put up for auction like a piece of celebrity flotsam.

Trump signed the hat before putting it up for sale. It was accompanied by a watercolor of her wearing the hat as well as a digital version of that painting — a non-fungible token (NFT) — that was notable for a few animated brushstrokes. At last check the highest bid was a little more than $170,000.

The former first lady, of course, has every right to sell the hat. It belongs to her. And she has certainly made it clear that she has little regard for the traditions established by her predecessors. But for a first lady who seemed so attuned to her look, so sensitive to the stories that photographs tell and the role that clothes have in telling them, the auction belittles fashion. It purges the hat from its priceless place in history and transforms it into an overpriced commodity. She lumped it into the same category as a signed baseball cap or a rock concert T-shirt stained with the lead singer’s sweat.

The reason this hat has resonance at all is not because it once sat atop Trump’s head but because of the circumstances of that day, of that time. She didn’t do anything to make the hat significant. The hat has meaning because it was worn on an afternoon early in the Trump administration; before the impeachments, before the pandemic, before the lies about an election, before an insurrection, before so many things seemed to become irreparably broken. It was worn way back when no one knew just how divided this country could really get.

Selling the hat, along with an NFT, in a cryptocurrency auction has all the hallmarks of a techno bro scheme. But former occupants of the White House raise money and enrich themselves in all sorts of ways. One woman’s NFT deal is another one’s content creation contract. The shame is not that Trump made the decision to sell the hat. Or even that she may well keep part of the proceeds. Trump’s time in the East Wing was little more than a series of photo ops. Those images were historic: each dress, each hat, each coat is a flash point. Now she’s selling off the history. What’s left behind? Nothing but celebrity.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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