This week, Melania Trump found herself in yet another fashion scandal.
The first lady was spotted boarding a plane to Texas in sky-high stilettos, though she was heading to an area devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
Public perception of Trump and her immediate predecessor, Michelle Obama, couldn’t be more different. Fans of Obama paint her as a J. Crew-clad woman of the people. Meanwhile, Trump was slammed for a photo shoot in which she twirled a string of diamonds like spaghetti.
For fans of Trump, glitzy designer clothing is part of her appeal. Instagram accounts with thousands of followers track her every outfit. The far-right website Breitbart News, which criticized Obama for wearing a $2,290 dress to meet the pope in 2015, wrote that Trump was the “breakout star” of President Donald Trump’s first trip abroad, radiating “high fashion.”
To see how accurate Melania Trump’s frivolous, filthy-rich reputation is in contrast to Obama’s more down-to-earth image, we decided to re-create a theoretical “week in the life” of the two first ladies. We wanted to see whether Trump was actually spending more than Obama, or whether she was just a victim of bad press.
We compared seven iconic looks that Obama and Trump wore to similar events, from vacationing to campaigning, as well as their price tags. Fashion can be a strategic way for the first lady to send a message to the American people – and Trump and Obama both have different reputations and messages to send.
Here’s how the two first ladies measure up and what it means for how Americans see them.
Campaigning at political conventions
Melania Trump at the Republican National Convention: $2,190 Roksanda dress and $675 Christian Louboutin heels.
Trump made headlines after buying a Roksanda “Margot” dress from Net-a-Porter. The $2,190 dress sold out less than an hour after her speech.
She paired the dress with $675 Christian Louboutin heels.
Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention: $995 dress by Christian Siriano and $675 metallic Jimmy Choo heels.
Obama’s blue dress was extremely similar to a $995 cobalt-blue dress made by Siriano, a designer who rose to prominence after appearing on “Project Runway.” Siriano reportedly custom-made the dress Obama wore as she gave her “they go low, we go high” speech.
Meeting with foreign leaders
Melania Trump at the G-7 summit: $53,130 Dolce & Gabbana outfit.
Trump made headlines when she wore a $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana jacket to a meeting with the spouses of some of the most powerful world leaders at the annual G-7 summit in Catania, Italy, in May. While we couldn’t identify the first lady’s dress and shoes, her bag was also Dolce & Gabbana and costs $1,630.
The first lady has worn Dolce & Gabbana on numerous occasions. The designer Stefano Gabbana has been extremely receptive of the support, posting many pictures of Trump in Dolce & Gabbana outfits on his Instagram.
Michelle Obama at the G-20 summit: $474 J. Crew outfit.
Obama also made headlines on her first trip to the United Kingdom as the first lady in 2009, thanks to her casual yet fashionable looks. The Guardian described her outfits, many of which were from J. Crew, as “a pitch of sunny, homely optimism, rather than sparkling glamour.”
One of Obama’s most memorable outfits of the trip was the one she wore to meet British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Fox News reported that the cardigan cost $298, the tank top $18, and the mint-green pencil skirt $158.
Melania Trump at an abuse-prevention nonprofit: $1,150 pair of sandals to complete an otherwise low-key look.
Footwear News reported (somewhat snarkily) that Trump wore a $1,150 pair of Rene Caovilla sandals to visit HomeSafe in April. Trump also wore a $225 pair of L’Agence Margot jeans and an unidentified khaki shirt.
Michelle Obama at a food bank: $540 pair of sneakers to complete an otherwise low-key look.
Around the White House
Melania Trump’s move-in outfit: $14,270.
While her son, Barron, got most of the press coverage when he and his mother officially moved into the White House in June, Melania wore $575 Bally wide-legged trousers, a $595 pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps, and a Dolce & Gabbana tank that probably cost at least $100. She finished the look with a Hermes Birkin bag, estimated to cost $13,000.
Michelle Obama’s J. Crew in the garden: $257.50.
Vogue said in its review of Obama’s 2012 book, “American Grown”: “Throughout the book, the first lady, always beautifully coiffed, wears a different J. Crew sweater to match the season (marigold yellow for summer, argyle for fall).”
Joint addresses to Congress
Melania Trump at a 2017 joint address to Congress: $5,000 Michael Kors suit jacket.
Trump’s Michael Kors look cost an estimated $9,600, combining a black blazer that cost $5,000 and a matching skirt priced at $4,600.
Michelle Obama at the 2015 State of the Union: $1,595 Michael Kors suit jacket.
Melania Trump’s return from Camp David: $303 J. Crew and J Brand.
Trump recently proved that Obama wasn’t the only first lady getting clothes from J. Crew. In late August, she returned from Camp David wearing a $75 pink top from the retailer.
Michelle Obama exiting Air Force One in shorts: ?
Obama faced serious backlash after being spotted leaving Air Force One for a hike of the Grand Canyon in 2009 wearing shorts. Four years later, Obama called the shorts incident one of her biggest fashion regrets.
While Time notes that no brand ever “stepped forward” to claim the “unflattering” shorts, the entire outfit looks very J. Crew. In any case, it’s safe to say it wasn’t too expensive.
Inauguration — and why the numbers don’t tell the full story
Trump’s fashion picks tend to be more expensive than Obama’s. But that’s not the full story.
First, there’s the question of custom-made dresses.
For the past three inaugurations, the first lady wore a custom-made look. (Obama wore Jason Wu both times, and Trump wore a Herve Pierre gown.) Trump has reportedly struggled to find designers willing to work with her. Meanwhile, many of Obama’s most iconic looks are made specifically for her and are priceless, such as a custom-made Versace gown with a theoretical price tag of $12,000.
Then there’s the question of why it even matters. First ladies’ outfits are not paid for with taxpayer dollars. You could be horrified that anyone could buy a coat that costs more than the average American makes in a year. But if you’re going to criticize Trump for wearing $1,000 shoes, you have to criticize Obama as well.
Melania Trump’s 2017 Inauguration Ball gown: priceless, custom-made Herve Pierre.
Michelle Obama’s 2013 Inauguration Ball gown: priceless, custom-made Jason Wu.
That isn’t to say that the first ladies’ fashion choices don’t matter.
Both Trump and Obama can afford to wear expensive clothing – especially when designers are giving it away. How they dress as first ladies, however, is a series of calculated, strategic decisions.
Obama used fashion to appear as an accessible yet aspirational “mom-in-chief,” despite her unique position: the most academically accomplished first lady in history, the first African-American first lady, and the first to be the frequent subject of racist attacks.
So far in her public life, Trump has never had to try to be relatable.
Ivanka Trump, as the founder of a fashion brand for working women, has dabbled in more inexpensive looks while maintaining her fashionista credentials. But Melania and her husband have long embodied a more gold-plated, luxe version of the American dream than the Obamas.
It’s a version of opulence that repulses many, especially progressives. But it’s also a luxury-oriented style of self-presentation that helped make the Trump family famous.
That may be shifting, with Melania sporting some less-expensive outfits such as her pink J. Crew vacation look. The first lady – along with the rest of the White House – knows the power of clothing and will continue to use it as a strategy to affect how she and the Trump administration are perceived.
If the American people tire of opulence, Melania is likely to try her hand at relatability, even if that means leaving the Dolce & Gabbana in her closet. At the end of the day, first-lady fashion is about the message, not the price tag.