Melania Trump framed – a history of first lady portraits

From the soft-focus sheen of the current Flotus to Nancy Reagan’s fashion-forward style, official White House photos reveal more than you might think

Melania Trump ... pure X Factor judge circa 2007.
Melania Trump ... pure X Factor judge circa 2007. Photograph: Regine Mahaux/Zuma/

Melania Trump by Regine Mahaux (2017)

A gushing blurb beside Melania Trump’s portrait, released yesterday on the White House website, reminds us that the former model has “worked with some of the top photographers in the fashion industry”. Apparently, none of them were available for this commission. That honour fell to Regine Mahaux, whose past work includes the Vanity Fair Trump shoot in which Barron, Melania and Donald lark around in a golden apartment. As a statement of the administration’s grasp on modernity, this latest photograph is only slightly less terrifying. The first lady’s crossed arms and assertive stance are pure X Factor judge circa 2007 – a depressingly logical setup for America’s first reality TV presidency. The use of soft focus is even weirder. Gently blurred photography is very hip at the moment, as seen in the nostalgic atmosphere of Juergen Teller’s spring/summer 2017 campaign for Céline and throughout Kim Kardashian’s artfully ironic social media channels. Here, the vaseline-on-the-lens look swerves those associations and appears simply to have been retrieved from a time capsule buried somewhere around 1980.

Michelle Obama.

Michelle Obama by Joyce N Boghosian (2009)

A classic example of Obama’s gift for visual branding. She’s smiling, she’s unguarded, she’s welcoming us into her White House world. She’s supporting an American designer – Michael Kors – in a modern sleeveless shift-dress with the establishment-pleasing addition of a double-string of pearls. Difficult to fathom it now, but this portrait caused quite the furore at the time because Flotus was baring her arms. (Clearly, in 2009 we didn’t have enough to worry about.)

Laura Bush.

Laura Bush by Krisanne Johnson (2005)

Flowers are a recurring motif of official first lady photography; they have clear symbolic meaning, given the role’s traditional preoccupation with stereotypically feminine “soft power” duties. (For what it’s worth, Jacqueline Kennedy was the first to hire a dedicated florist for the White House; Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t that bothered about them.) This photograph is, indeed, soft – and twinkly; it’s first lady as friend to the nation, relaxing in a chair, one eyebrow raised inquisitively in the manner of Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote.

Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton by Jeffrey Markowitz (1994)

More freshly arranged flowers in the background, although Clinton wasn’t one to give up her career to host teas and bake cookies; this picture came not long after the backlash sparked by her famous remarks to that effect. It’s a great shot. Her gaze is steady; her smile is confident, capable, kind. Surely this is what a president looks like?

Barbara Bush.

Barbara Bush by David Valdez (1989)

Having been not just Flotus and Slotus (second lady, wife of the vice-president), but also Mopotus (mother of the president; OK, I made that one up), Barbara Bush is as establishment as they come. She played a traditional, supportive first-lady role; so reluctant was she to take centre stage that an official solo portrait from her White House days has proved difficult to come by. But we do have this. Bush was famously uninterested in fashion, nevertheless her clothes convey status, money and power: the creamy dress, the pearls, the bobby dazzler of a diamond earring.

Nancy Reagan.

Nancy Reagan (1981)

There was nothing hip about Nancy Reagan back in the day – not even when she hung out with Zammo from Grange Hill – but, amazingly enough, this is the most fashion-forward of all the official first-lady shots. That blouse is pure new-era Gucci; the mid-length skirt precedes next season’s soft-power silhouette. Reagan’s clasped-hand stance is all unassuming friendliness; the wide crop – including the red-walled, gilded room – suggests she is neither cowed by, nor ashamed of, the grandeur that surrounds her. It’s aesthetically pleasing. But does that make her cool? To that I am going to just say: no.


Hannah Marriott

The GuardianTramp

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