Melania Trump’s colonial fashion statement should surprise absolutely no one

Safari by Melania Trump.
Safari by Melania Trump.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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US first lady Melania Trump is in Africa this week for humanitarian reasons, but she also may be attempting to resurrect Ralph Lauren’s now-defunct Safari clothing line. On a short safari in Kenya, she wore a crisp white button-up shirt, khaki jodhpurs, knee-high riding boots, and a blazing white pith helmet.

Pith helmets—also known as topees, according to The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion—were originally made from a cork-like material called sholapith and designed to provide protection from the sun while allowing for ventilation. But the pith helmet’s historical legacy goes beyond European cork varietals. The headgear was standard-issue for 19th century British officers in India and Africa, making it a potent symbol of colonial rule. They’ve long since been abandoned, making them nearly cartoonish in their connotations today (or actually cartoonish: when TinTin went to Congo in 1931, he wore a pith helmet).

This makes the helmet an odd choice for a first lady supposedly on a goodwill trip—but precisely what you’d expect from the one currently in the White House. Did she wear it with the intention of offending? I don’t purport to know what Melania Trump could possibly be thinking, ever, but I certainly didn’t expect REI cargo shorts and a fanny-pack.

Given the first lady’s legacy as a 1990s-era fashion model (not to mention the wife of a man who reportedly referred to African countries as “shitholes”), her look is spot-on. Mrs. Trump, after all, was working in fashion when Ralph Lauren’s Safari collection had magazine ads depicting white models cradling lion cubs. During the same time, Banana Republic stores had vintage Jeeps “crashed” into their fronts.

In an oral history of Banana Republic (the store, not the questionable moniker), the store’s former production manager recalled the “safari craze” of the late 1980s—a sort of shopping suburban interpretation of fashion photographer Peter Beard’s shots of Veruschka posing with a rifle over her shoulders. (The stores apparently carried pith helmets until Mickey Drexler got a hold of the place after it was brought under Gap’s umbrella.)

“Having flocked to movies like Out of Africa, Romancing the Stone and especially the Indiana Jones films, Americans were nuts about khaki twill and far-flung, steamy destinations,” wrote Robert Klara. “For those who couldn’t afford a ticket to Sri Lanka, Banana Republic’s mall stores offered a substitute of sorts.”

All of these totems of western pop culture—Banana Republic’s “safari craze,” Ralph Lauren’s well-appointed tents, Peter Beard’s fashion shoots, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa—are problematic because they exoticize and generalize the people and places surrounding their white subjects.

Melania’s pith helmet and its accompanying clothing seem to celebrate this legacy, whether knowingly or not. They fit perfectly with the first lady’s tradition of dressing for her role, as the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino once put it, “as if she were a paper doll, every outfit a costume.”

Costumes are frequently offensive, and this one of a white westerner in Africa is no exception. But is it surprising? Not even a little bit.