I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear,” First Lady Melania Trump lamented on the final day of her solo four-country trip to Africa, which took her last week to Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, and Egypt. She was reacting to criticism of the pith helmet she had worn earlier in Kenya.

It’s a sentiment any serious person would sympathize with—but it was difficult to honor her wish. The objectives of her trip weren’t clearly defined, and some of her clothes were, well, distracting. 

It was not clothing, but costume. And costume always attracts attention, invites interpretation, and sends its own message.

Take the pith helmet. That’s a hat with a history. It was widely worn by European colonial armies in Africa and Asia and by the end of the 19th century had also become common civilian wear for Westerners in the tropics; it is considered by many a symbol of colonial oppression. Why, one can’t help but wonder, would the first lady of the United States want to lift up that rock?

Furthermore, at the precise moment she was making her plea, Trump was standing on the Giza plateau outside Cairo; behind her was the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu, the only remaining wonder of the ancient world. And with her attire she was inexplicably channeling 1930s, gangster-era Chicago: What else to make of the wide, black-belted trousers paired with a white shirt and a black tie, a menswear-style double-breasted jacket draped over her shoulders, and a black-banded fedora on her head?

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