Riddle of the Slovenian sphinx and the pussy bow

Some thought Mrs Trump's pussy-bow blouse at the St Louis debate was her way of screaming her disgust with her husband's use of the word, while others viewed it as a way of sartorially standing by him.
Some thought Mrs Trump's pussy-bow blouse at the St Louis debate was her way of screaming her disgust with her husband's use of the word, while others viewed it as a way of sartorially standing by him.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Was Melania Trump's choice of outfit at the St Louis debate a subversive move or a show of support for her husband?

It was a relief to see Melania Trump at the St Louis debate.

I was worried that the svelte Slo- venian had gone into witness protection. Or that she was cloistered at a spa in the Swiss Alps.

Melania virtually disappeared after her Republican convention mishap purloining some Michelle Obama speech chunks. And then, after the invidious 2005 videotape of her husband and Billy Bush surfaced - with the bros bantering about groping women at a time when Melania was pregnant - there was talk that she and Donald would do a Bill and Hillary 60 Minutes-type interview where she stood by her Cheez Doodle.

It wasn't her style, and that idea got dropped. Melania did issue a statement calling her husband's comments "offensive" but saying that he had her support and suggesting that everyone "focus on the important issues facing our nation and the world". Who knew that the important issue would be a pussy bow?

On Sunday night, Melania swept into the hall, smiled and shook hands with her counterpart Bill Clinton. It was a classy contrast from no handshake by Hillary and Donald at the start and the tacky tableau concocted by Donald Trump, who sat three of the women who have accused Bill of sexual assault in the front row, after debate officials rejected seating them in the Trump family box.

The sultry former model was not wearing her usual bell-sleeved or puffy-sleeved cocktail dress in white or black. She blazed in a fuchsia blouse and matching slim pants. A pantsuit! But it was the bow on the Gucci silk crepe de Chine blouse that lit up the Internet.

Cosmopolitan magazine breathlessly tweeted the debate news bulletin: "Melania Trump is wearing a $1,100 pussy-bow blouse right now." Then, as is the wont with the Donald, conspiracy theories bloomed. Some on Twitter thought it was the often-mute Melania's way of screaming her disgust with her husband's use of the word in a crude palaver on an open mic.

"In my fantasies," Ashley Spencer tweeted, "Melania is a subversive feminist just waiting to yell 'October surprise!' and don an #ImWithHer hat."

Another tweet by Christen Clifford agreed that it was a sign of going rogue: "Melania is going to vote for H.R.C. the #PussyBow and matching pants (suit) confirm that she is a double agent." A watcher named Lizabeth slyly tweeted, "Love Melania's pussy-bow blouse, wonder if her husband grabbed it from the closet for her."

Others thought the bow, echoing the word her husband used with such egregious abandon, was a way of sartorially standing by him and dissing his critics.

The conservative website Breitbart, whose executive chairman Steve Bannon took leave to serve as Trump's chief executive, proclaimed Melania's pussy bow "amazing trolling".

Even Nobel Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times Paul Krugman weighed in on the pussy bow riot, tweeting: "No comment, and I am unanimous in that."

Seeing the bow gave me acid flashbacks to the 1970s, when John T. Molloy wrote Women's Dress For Success, advising aspiring career women to dress like men, in Oxford shirts, navy suits and floppy bow ties. I tried it once and gave the bow away, praying that women would not have to mimic men to get ahead.

As USA Today explained, the pussy bow got its name from the ones tied under kittens' chins back in the 1930s. Then it became a staple in Molloy's tips for climbing the ladder. Finally, decades later, it is repurposed as chic and flirty, the signature of Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele.

It is so hip that the First Lady has worn a pussy-bow dress. (Sorry, Melania, Michelle got there first again.)

Sunday night, things got into a swivet, with the blouse selling out instantly on Net-a-Porter, which described it as "a chic way to elevate office or weekend looks".

A Trump campaign spokesman had to make a statement, telling CBS that Melania's choice of a pussy bow was "unintentional".

As it happened, I knew someone who could solve the riddle of the Slovenian sphinx and the pussy bow: Andre Leon Talley, the sultan of style, someone so influential that Kim Kardashian dressed her daughter as Andre, complete with billowing black caftan, for Halloween.

Andre was the stylist for Melania's gilded age 2005 wedding to Trump. The wedding was going on the cover of Vogue, so Andre, then an editor at large, attended with Anna Wintour. He flew to Paris with Melania to shop for her wedding dress and trousseau at the top couture houses. They visited Dior, Valentino and Chanel, and ultimately Melania chose a strapless Dior John Galliano gown estimated to cost US$200,000.

"Melania is an extraordinary, articulate person," Andre reports. "She's charming. She's extremely soignee and polished. Her manners are impeccable. She was very guarded, very private, but very gracious. She was polite to all the couturiers. She wasn't walking in as an 'I'm the future Mrs Trump' diva. Listen, she is the only woman in the world who stands and walks comfortably on 41/2-inch stiletto heels. Her feet are trained. Her legs are a long drink of water. She's very much like a high, super, superglamorous Stepford Wife. She was extraordinarily groomed. Groomed to a fastidious fault. Everywhere." Her dress, Andre recalls, was "quite a concoction".

I told Andre we needed to solve the mystery of the feline wife and the pussy bow. Was it a feminist signal, using a throwback style, to women upset by her husband's reprehensible riff on the bus with Billy Bush? (Remember President Bill Clinton sent Monica Lewinsky a signal on TV by wearing a Zegna tie she had given him?)

Andre thinks not. "I'm inclined to think that Melania is supportive of him," he said. "I don't think she's a disrupter. If anything, it was a signal of support for him, using the mot du jour and taking it to the next level with fashion." He was more curious about her pick of the colour fuchsia paired with Louboutin "So Kate" white stiletto pumps for St Louis in October.

"Odd choice," the fashion mandarin said. "Totally out of sync. Hillary's pantsuit was more appropriate."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Riddle of the Slovenian sphinx and the pussy bow'. Print Edition | Subscribe