Running for president of the United States is expensive. While most politicians try to bury the conversation of money in politics, then-Republican nominee for president Donald Trump bragged that he spent his own money to fund his campaign. That, combined with the record-number of small donations from his supporters, helped propel Trump’s White House win.
But once the campaign funding stops and you move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., what do you have to do — and spend — to look the part?
President Trump’s wardrobe choices are much of what you’d expect from a billionaire president: Brioni suits that cost $6,000 and say “Wall Street” more than they do “Main Street.” In his 2004 book, “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire,” the president said he purchased his Brioni suits off the rack; a custom Brioni suit costs up to $17,000, though there’s no word on whether now-President Trump bothers with the premium servicing. Some of his clothing for his inauguration, including the overcoat and shirt, were from the more affordable Brooks Brothers brand.
It’s more difficult to estimate how much it costs to look the part of first lady. For Melania Trump, crafting the right FLOTUS image is tricky, especially when you consider her modeling career was more akin to Playboy than Martha Stewart Living.
How do you manage to look political but not elitist? Fashionable but not too fashionable? Lauren A. Rothman, D.C.-based stylist and author of “Style Bible: What to Wear to Work,” says Melania’s challenge will be to seem as warm and accessible to voters as Michelle Obama was.
“Her style has to be authentic. If it feels like a costume, she won’t be relatable. She also has to be iconic.”
And building that image doesn’t usually come cheap. During the 2008 election cycle, Sarah Palin, via her campaign staffers, reportedly spent $165,000 on three stylists in a little over two months, a six-figure budget reserved typically for A-list actors. That money was spent not only on wardrobe, but also on makeup artists and hairstylists.
More recently, critics chided Hillary Clinton for giving a speech on income inequality during her campaign for president — while wearing a $12,495 Armani jacket.
But Rothman, whose clients primarily work in politics, says Melania’s wardrobe doesn’t have to be so expensive.
“For women in politics generally — perhaps not always the first lady — you could have a wardrobe that’s just as stylish for $2,500 a season as you could if you spent $25,000 a season.”
Michelle Obama, who seamlessly blended J. Crew with Jason Wu, is perhaps the best modern example of a woman who incorporated relatively affordable clothing into her wardrobe as first lady.
Whatever Melania is spending on her own wardrobe, the question remains: Who’s paying?
While the Trumps are wealthy enough to buy virtually whatever they want, there aren’t laws surrounding the subject of White House dress code and clothing budgets. Rather, the subject has operated around a set of norms that dictate spending. Don’t dress too lavishly, and always buy your clothes, says Rothman. It’s fine for actors to borrow dresses, not so much for politicians.
“From an ethics perspective, many politicians have to create this wardrobe, and they have to buy their stuff as opposed to having it lent. Lending, that comes from the red carpet world of Hollywood, not the blue carpet in D.C.”
The only evident policy that could be applied to the first lady’s wardrobe is that on accepting gifts: a $350 limit on gifts from foreign government sources and a $20 limit on gifts from private sources, both foreign and domestic.
The first lady could, however, choose to buy the gifts she receives at their market value. According to the Atlantic, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bought a $970 black pearl necklace given to her by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012.
Most gifts whose values exceed the designated threshold — including those from designers — are donated. Emails revealed by WikiLeaks show Hillary Clinton consulting with longtime staffer Capricia Marshall and aide Robert Russo about receiving a scarf from the Hermitage Museum in Russia.
“Since the museum is owned by the Russian government, it would be considered a foreign government source, and subject to the higher $350 limit. This means you can keep the scarf and book without having to pay because their total value was $130,” Russo writes in the email.
Michelle Obama purchased the clothes she wore on a regular basis (if at a discount), but for political occasions like state dinners, her gowns were given to the National Archives or a museum. (For what it’s worth, in 2009 Michelle Obama received $244,266 in gifts from foreign dignitaries, more than any other government official.)
Ralph Lauren, who designed the ensemble Melania wore to her husband’s inauguration ceremony, declined to give any details about whether Melania purchased the outfit, if it was given to her, or if there are any plans to continue dressing the first lady. Melania’s outfit was a custom piece, so pricing details aren’t readily available.
Stylist Corey Samuel Roché, who has worked with several high profile politicians, says he doesn’t think Melania would’ve paid full price for the inauguration outfit, but estimates it would’ve cost about $3,500 if the pieces were produced for the brand’s high-end Ralph Lauren Collection.
What we do know: Melania has expensive taste. In 2005, she wore a $200,000 Christian Dior Haute Couture gown for her wedding to the future president, though it would shatter all existing norms for the first lady to spend that kind of money while her husband is in office.
As first lady, Melania Trump doesn’t receive a salary, that is, unless President Trump decides to do for Melania what he said he did for his first wife, Ivana, when he announced with typical brashness: “My wife, Ivana, is a brilliant manager. I will pay her one dollar a year and all the dresses she can buy!”
Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style and Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.