I’ve puzzled over the design of Melania Trump’s inaugural ball gown. Designed by Ralph Lauren, it didn’t look like anything I’d seen Lauren (or his team, to be more precise) design. It seemed… well, off brand for Lauren. Lauren’s couture-ish designs have been, well, to my middle-income eyes, weak versions of run-of-the-mill dress gowns. Bias cuts, little fabric or way too much, if not a bias cut, then an indulgence of billowing fabrics and simple tops, and a tendency to use overly shiny or off-toned fabrics —
dresses to left, from 2015 fall runway show; dress to right from 2013 runway.
I think of Ralph Lauren as reductive and leaning towards plagiarism. The dresses are reductive because it is as though whoever designed them circled parts of dresses from other designers and then built a dress — off the shoulder, basic ballgown silhouette, etc. The plagiarism comes from the use of detailing: Ralph Lauren gowns use basic standard silhouettes and don’t change those, but added are “touches” to make the dress look up-to-date, usually pulled directly from more adventuresome designers who set the trends — safari-styling and pockets, or gauzy asymmetrical scarves (because it’s too daring and too hard to design a genuinely asymmetrical gown), one shoulder off, or both. Yawn city.
So how did this emerge from Ralph Lauren?
There are some elements that look “laurenish” to me: the narrow silhouette, the tight band across her lower shoulders (tight enough to make easy movement difficult and even painful– an interesting effect especially when her hand is crushed in another’s grip and raised higher than she can lift her own arm). And most perplexing from a “this is ralph lauren” perspective: The Flange, that rib of fabric swooping across the torso, and the narrow blood line of belt. What the innovative-design heck is that, coming from Ralph Lauren?
Above image: Here it is in full length and with the wearer moving. That interstellar flange! What a cool detail, what a jarring note, what a critique on the ceremony, especially when that terrible blood line marks her (ideal) center. Really, it looks like a sexed-up version of…
Michelle Obama’s daring Brandon Maxwell gown, worn in August 2016 at a state dinner honoring the leadership of Singapore. Maxwell’s design was spectacular in many ways: a narrow column dress silhouette (the same as Melania’s Lauren design) with a unique flange of fabric curving the top line (an interesting move — strapless dresses usually have a straight line here, or a deep v cut). and the back train, split up the center, rendered the gown modest and queenly — again, an unusual choice.
Brandon Maxwell’s designs are innovative in how they play with silhouette and shape, rendering banal styles like the column dress into something new, something given a twist. Sometimes, as the back of Obama’s dress shows, he’s willing to take a risk on fit to highlight the innovations. So her dress puckers a bit on the sides in the back, because that rim of flanged fabric needs to end somewhere — he didn’t quite know where to take it, but still, he’s pushing the edges (literally) of the idea of a column ball gown. In his 2015 collection these are some of the designs he showcased.
If you are like me, you pause and can’t quite decide if you “like” these. That’s the point — he’s moving design in a new direction. The cape-like cover of the white gown to the left, the deep projecting flare on the top in center, and the insectoid tail of the top to the left: these are genuinely creative designs revealing the human body in articulated fashion. And like Obama’s gown, these are not especially revealing designs even as they show the body underneath them. Like insect wings, the clothing enfolds the body within it.
Here is Melania’s Lauren dress, next to Lady Gaga in a Brandon Maxwell design. And we start to see the bigger picture. A lineage of how to copycat a design: Lady Gaga’s Brandon Maxwell-designed white jumpsuit from February 2016, Melania Trump’s Ralph Lauren-designed white jumpsuit from November 2016 (a ready-to-wear item available in the Lauren webshop), and her inaugural dress from January 2017 (custom designed).
It is as if Melania wanted that Brandon Maxwell effect but couldn’t quite nail it. But why not? can’t she just get Maxwell…. No, she can’t. Brandon Maxwell designed at least two outfits for Michelle Obama, who is featured prominently on his website. Other women who have worn his designs include Lady Gaga, above, and Karli Kloss, a supermodel dating Josh Kushner (Jared Kushner’s brother. Jared is the husband of Ivanka Trump and has an embattled but still, insider position within the white house administration). Kloss and Josh Kushner have not hid their support of Clinton and later, the anti-trump protest movements. Maxwell’s newest collection is presented in an astonishingly beautiful video about his model, Ebony, and her Detroit, Michigan roots. I don’t think Melania could just call him up. But she could request something similar, something kind-of like, you know, that amazing dress of Michelle Obama’s, from a designer pledged to work with her, who wasn’t bound by his loyalties to progressive values or democratic with-a-small-d ideals.
But sometimes, I think, even society designers like Lauren’s teams can’t resist their calling as artistic beings whose sensibilities, even when dulled a bit by financial success, see the world through critical eyes. A silly goth look for years has been a red velvet choker around the neck — imagery calling back to the guillotine and to the overblown 18th century fashions of elaborate chokers. The montage below is a current offering of chokers, a couple 18th century portraits, and an image of Kirsten Dunst in the 2006 film Marie Antoinette.
That narrow line of blood-red spanning Melania’s waist, fixed just under the sharpest point of her projecting white flange, suggests something slightly dark about the path of the falling star. I expect the accessory was needed to break the white block of fabric — the point of the flange doesn’t accentuate the waist enough for traditionally-minded women. The center line doesn’t hold it together and while banal, the accessorizing is an off-tilt message of — who knows? bloodlines and the queasy racist heritage of that?; guillotines and revolutions?; points that slice rather than expand? A disconcerting note.
image: from trendgals.com, an actual stupid thing you could buy in another life.
And while we are on this, let’s do another comparison. Melania’s blue dress and capelet-collar, also designed for her by Ralph Lauren.
I spent quite a bit of time searching for a predecessor, digging through online museum collections, google image searches, and etsy patterns. The closest parallel I could find went back to 19th century bolero jackets popular in the 1850s, not exactly a typical source of inspiration for Ralph Lauren. And there was a flare of bolero fold-over collars from 1959 to 1960. These sewing patterns from Etsy show the design: the late 1950s jacket from Simplicity shows a summer dress with pink bolero jacket that folds over; the 1959 pattern from McCalls has both a capelet and a baby blue bolero; and the jacket with a configuration closest to Lauren’s 2017 design is the 1960 Pierre Cardin sheath dress with a jacket that slightly resembles Melania’s. But the style was not common, popular, nor long-lived.
images: cotton dress, from etsy seller moDeLis for $20.00; McCall’s patriotic jacket set from anne8865 for $36.00, and the cream of the crop Cardin pattern, pristine, is at SoVintageOnEtsy for $145.00. The Cardin Vogue patterns are major collector items, btw.
But looking through Brandon Maxwell’s portfolio, I found another possible piece of the bolero jacket inspiration puzzle. This dress, worn by Karlie Kloss a year or so ago. Take a closer look. Melania isn’t channeling Jackie Kennedy — in fact, Kennedy avoided this high-necked, wrapped-up look, preferring the more typical and open jewel neck without a collar at all. But Kloss’s Brandon Maxwell dress + Pierre Cardin’s heavy fold-over collar combined with the crossed bolero? Make it look like this, one imagines… a bit like this. Like something she can’t quite have, or get, or embody. But something a bit like it seems to be good enough for her.