What India Wore and How the Trumps Looked

What India Wore and How the Trumps Looked

Nuanced diplomacies of gesture, colour and smile have been darting around the Trumps in India. Here is how to read Melania (and Ivanka) Trump’s whites

Did you notice that US first lady Melania Trump had momentarily stepped out of her high-heeled white stilettos into flat, white slip-on shoes when she and US President Donald Trump laid a tributary wreath at Rajghat in Delhi this morning? The sleek high heels came back on when the first couple of the United States planted a tree sapling on the same grounds. You saw two kinds of footwear but not her changing from one to another of course. Did you notice that when the Trumps arrived for the spectacular, tri-service (Army, Navy, and Air Force) guard of honour at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan, President Ram Nath Kovind’s wife did not shake hands with them? Instead, Savita Kovind, the first lady of India dressed in a silk sari with a Banarasi border offered a polite namaste in Indian traditional style. Flotus reciprocated with a namaste too while Prez Trump nodded emphatically with a big smile.

Did you notice that when the Trumps reached Hyderabad House after their Rajghat visit, Melania Trump carefully walked a step behind the two men (Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prez Trump), instead of the three walking in one flank? Political hierarchy is such a demanding mistress, that even the wife must fall a step behind.

Many other nuanced diplomacies have been darting around right from the moment the Trumps with their entourage—daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner included—alighted from Air Force One at Ahmedabad on February 24.

Few may have missed that during their Sabarmati Ashram visit in Ahmedabad, the Trumps eased down into a sitting position on the floor near the Gandhi charkha. It was a response-able action—bending over the charkha would have ruined the poise of the moment. While Melania’s instant reflex was to try rotate Gandhi’s ultimate existentialist tool, Prez Trump fiddled with the yarn end. The three of them, Modi included, white khadi stoles around their necks made quite the photo. Melania in a white jumpsuit with a deep green Banarasi brocade sash, Prez Trump in his familiar dark power suit with a dhokla yellow tie, and PM Modi, otherwise a flamboyant dresser himself muted this once in a white kurta pyjama with a dull brown jacket and black shoes. Each wearing their own styles yet democratised for a photo-op by a common piece of khadi fabric that wove unusual meaning into the frame.


US President Donald Trump with US first lady Melania Trump at the Taj Mahal, Agra.

Unusual for some, but ironic and satire worthy for others who bristled at the very thought of Donald Trump in Gandhian territory.

All state visits are instances of painstakingly planned and dexterous diplomatic arithmetic. Large teams trained in diplomatic perfection work on visual, verbal and non-verbal assignments of symbols, comfort, honour, status and political appropriateness. All these elements are then immersed in nationally recognised and culturally specific rituals of celebration. Clothes, body language, food, music, fanfare, how many steps right, how many left, who says what, who stands where…it’s a branding exercise like none other. A branding exercise calibrated to precisely code the messaging that one country wants to communicate to another.

So even those who shrug off the Trump ladies—the apolitical Melania or the strident supporter of her father’s policies Ivanka— for reasons associated with the man in their lives, must accept that by according Trump the highest form of ceremonial reception, India made its stand quite clear. That the two nations are friends regardless of what Trump’s detractors and critics in the US say or do.

There are many ways to look at the Trump Wardrobe in India. One is in the light of where we personally stand on his highly debatable politics. Then allowing it to cast a shadow of judgement on whether the first lady deserves attention or not.

However, that is not the only way. It is crucial to zoom into the fact that this is a state visit that is politically and strategically valuable to India. Melania’s clothes or Ivanka appearance must be seen only in the context of this visit.

When you detach the Trump women from the political baggage of their surname and view them against the backdrop of the gaiety, pomp, colour, garba, thumping dholaks and nylon dhoklas that “garvi” Gujarat put out, Melania’s white jump suit by French designer Herve Pierre worn for day one of the visit is a suave and thoughtful choice. White for vibrant Gujarat, the state of riotous colours, in a silhouette that becomes her height and figure with a waist sash made out of the border of an old green and gold Indian textile. She ticked many boxes.


Photo: Sajjad Hussain / AFP

US First Lady Melania Trump witnesses a

Today, when Flotus turned out in a printed, collared white dress by Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, white high-heeled pumps again and a slim red belt cinching her look, she looked unfussed and comfortable. There was no flurried craving to match the regalia of the ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan with her clothes. That is a smart option. After making a point with her brocade sash yesterday, today her nod at Indian culture was through her namastes. First with Mrs. Kovind and then while paying her respects at Gandhi Samadhi. By the time, she reached a Delhi school for a Happiness Class visit organised by the Arvind Kejriwal government, Melania looked happy alright with marigold garlands hugging her warmly and the matted red tikka of welcome dotting her forehead.


Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP

US First Daughter and White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump visits the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Photo: Instagram/ivankatrump

Ivanka Trump at the Hyderabad House.

Ditto for Ivanka Trump. In her printed dress and red pointy heels in Ahmedabad, Ivanka—designer of a now dormant fashion label that came under scrutiny for using exploited sweatshops in developing countries—looked as svelte and attractive as all her public appearances across the world establish her to be. This morning, her immaculately tailored white sherwani by well-known Indian designer Anita Dongre, worn with cigarette trousers and white shoes for Rashtrapati Bhavan got it right again. She looked business-like, sophisticated and pleased. That is good diplomacy.

Whether or not you think Dongre should have dressed Ivanka or refrained from promoting her sherwani on social media, the fact is, the clothes looked good.

Tonight, before they depart, when the Trumps appear for the high-profile banquet dinner with the country’s who’s who, we will know even better what will “tie” India to America in the future beyond Donald Trump in Delhi Darbar. How the Trump ladies interpret formal wear for an evening in the capital will also tell us if they are influenced by how India wears its hospitality when it receives special guests.

Banner image: US President Donald Trump (R) and First Lady Melania Trump (C) are accompanied by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they visit the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on February 24, 2020. Courtesy: Mandel Ngan / AFP