First lady Melania Trump leapt back into the media spotlight Thursday with a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. But despite the purpose of her appearance, it was the Zara jacket Melania wore as she began her border visit that has come to dominate headlines. Cameras captured Melania boarding a plane to South Texas wearing a green army style jacket emblazoned with the words, "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?" on the back. Coincidence? Those who study and research presidents' wives tell Bustle that that first ladies historically are very deliberate in their sartorial decisions.
"I think it was a tone deaf choice because of course it could be interpreted as sending a message that she doesn't care about these kids she was visiting, which is clearly not the case," journalist Kate Andersen Brower tells Bustle. Andersen Brower, who authored First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies and, more recently, First In Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power, calls it "bizarre," but adds, "I see it as a very fashionable middle finger to the press, honestly."
In fact, Andersen Brower says she doesn't think the message implied in Melania Trump's jacket was related to her U.S.-Mexico border trip at all, but rather meant solely for reporters. "I think it was a message to the media that she doesn't care what they say [or] write about her," Andersen Brower says. "Notice she wore it walking up the stairs of the plane so the cameras and reporters could get a good look."
Although Trump did not sport the jacket during her tour of a children's detention shelter in Texas, the first lady was spotted with the jacket while boarding and de-boarding a plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland both before and after her border visit.
According to Andersen Brower, Trump "has always been thoughtful about what she wears" and, having been a model, "clearly cares deeply about appearances." Meaning it's unlikely that the first lady simply threw the jacket on without thinking about the message it might send.
"I think the jacket was an intentional choice," Andersen Brower says.
Historically speaking, first ladies have long been clued in to the political power of fashion. "In the past, when first ladies have made a fashion choice in order to send a message, it has often been to show goodwill toward a country they are visiting," Dr. Katherine Jellison, chair of Ohio University's history department and an extensive researcher of first ladies, tells Bustle. "Also, in times of perceived economic crisis, first ladies have sometimes dressed in ways that emphasize frugality."
But while the first lady's office has refuted claims that Melania Trump was trying to say something with her outerwear — "It's a jacket, there was no hidden message," Stephanie Grisham, Melania's director of communications, says in a statement to Bustle — President Donald Trump has since argued otherwise.
"'I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?' written on the back of Melania's jacket, refers to the Fake News Media," President Trump tweeted Thursday. "Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!"
According to Andersen Brower, Melania Trump "is very upset about what's said about her and her family" in the media. The jacket might be her attempt to push back on the media's narrative without having to utter a word.
"It appears she hasn't fully come to terms with her position as a highly visible and public person," Andersen Brower says.
But Dr. Lauren Wright, a politics and public affairs lecturer at Princeton University who wrote, On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today, says the jacket was a misstep on Trump's part because it's come to overshadow her border visit.
"Mrs. Trump is the single most important public messenger the administration has on this border issue," Wright tells Bustle. "Anything that dilutes that message limits her capability to help the administration at a time they really need it."