E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India hinges on a dramatic scene that takes place deep in the fictitious Marabar Caves. The young Englishwoman, Adela Quested, escorted to the caves on an excursion led by the Muslim physician, Dr. Aziz, experiences an attack, panics, and flees. When the distraught Quested is found among the hills, she’s described as ‘practically done for – her helmet off.’ While Forster leaves the truth of what happened in the caves intentionally vague, the rest of the novel reckons with the accusation leveled at Dr. Aziz that he attempted to assault her. A trial ensues, laying bare the fragile ties holding the English and the natives together.
The helmet in question, which makes no subsequent appearance in the novel, is almost certainly a pith helmet, a symbol of colonial rule that has, owing to Melania Trump donning one on a Kenyan safari on Friday, added to the heaps of censure leveled against her. It should surprise no one that the First Lady’s sartorial choice, no doubt inspired by a Ralph Lauren ad campaign (crisp shirt, jodhpurs, riding boots), conjures up a troubling history.
The optics of Melania Trump’s look continues her commitment to dressing the part. In her mind, she plays the role of a sophisticated Westerner enjoying a leisurely safari expedition. It was for centuries – and continues to be, after all – the privilege of Westerners to land in a wilderness elsewhere, survey the landscape, and leave. Melania Trump, on tour to meet heads of state, deliver aid, and enhance America’s humanitarian reputation worldwide, knows appearances matter. Or does she?
On the wide grasslands of Kenya, her gleaming pith helmet, once considered de rigueur for European colonialists embarking on expeditions in tropical colonies, may have seemed unnatural in its environs at the same time that it was entirely befitting on her.
Generally white or khaki – the lighter the better, for reflecting the sun’s oppressive rays – the pith helmet is constructed of shola pith, derived from the spongy inner matter of a plant indigenous to the marshy regions of the Indian subcontinent. British colonial officers, impressed by the version native soldiers wore to fight during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, adopted a military style that was, by 1870, in full use among European armies stationed across the tropical colonies. The military style featured a raised peak for keeping the head cool and ventilated, as well as a cloth covering often decorated with medals and insignia.
On the other hand, Melania Trump’s – and probably Quested’s, too – was in the civilian style. Commonly referred to as a topi (Hindi for ‘hat’), her pith helmet features a lower dome and a wider brim for shielding the face. Cleaner and lacking military badges, it was commonly donned for both formal and casual occasions, until it fell out of favour with the fall of the British Raj in 1947.
Between 1943 and 1947, George Orwell wrote a series of essays for the British newspaper Tribune, entitled ‘As I Please.’ One, from 1944, a riff on the pith helmet, uses the accessory as an opportunity to poke holes in the European superstition about sunstroke. The pith, for Orwell, takes on ‘considerable social significance’ in elucidating the fraught relationship between colonizer and colonized. As Orwell sees it, imperialism is predicated on stressing a difference between self and other. ‘You can only rule over a subject race, especially when you are in a small minority, if you honestly believe yourself to be racially superior, and it helps towards this if you can believe that the subject race is biologically different.’ Melania Trump doesn’t believe she has authority over the African nations. But she might surely believe she’s in some way superior. As Orwell puts it, ‘The thin skull was the mark of racial superiority.’
But perhaps even more insidiously, Melania Trump’s ignorant privilege allows her to believe she’s somehow more delicate, more vulnerable than the Kenyan natives escorting her on safari. For Orwell, ‘‘natives’, their skulls being thicker, had no need of these helmets.’ Melania Trump’s pith helmet allows her to not only look the part, but also to somehow believe that she’s more in danger of suffering from sun exposure. Such thinking stems from centuries of Western physiognomy and lazy anthropological research designed to ground racist claims about the other. It’s as if her body requires a different kind of treatment: simultaneously more valuable and more fragile. (In reality, owing to our understanding of the dangers of skin cancers and overheating, modern medicine since the 1950s has proven that people of all races should wear protective headgear while out in the sun.)
But the First Lady’s sartorial obsession with dressing the part should surprise no one. Her years spent modeling in Europe and America during the 1990s have shaped her knowledge of fashion. This kind of training, with a lack of imagination on the part of the dresser, can only model an individual to become a hanger. Here, another essay by Orwell is instructive, purely from the perspective of the roles Westerners take on in the colonies. ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ published in 1936 in the literary magazine New Writing, is a possible first-hand account of Orwell’s time spent in Moulmein, Burma, as a police officer. For the narrator, presumed to be Orwell, the incident of a raging elephant terrorizing the village exposes a hidden dualism within the mind of a colonizer. The locals hoot and jeer at Orwell, affording him no respect. ‘As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear.’ Faced with the responsibility of protecting the natives, Orwell takes up a rifle, the only thing that makes him feel powerful, and in a sense, it’s this costume, this posturing that lends meaning to his job. Ultimately, as Orwell realizes, ‘my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.’
Main image: US First Lady Melania Trump on safari at Nairobi National Park, 5 October 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Saul Loeb
Rajat Singh is a writer living in New York. He is working on a collection of essays on queer melancholy. His writing appears in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Offing and the Los Angeles Review of Books.