In politics, presentation is half of the battle. Just ask any First Lady. With fashion magazines — and nowadays, blogs — turning a critical eye towards one of the country’s most visible women, every clothing choice becomes an exercise in image creation, both for the First Lady and the entire presidential family. Here’s a look at some of history’s most memorable First Lady fashionistas and flops.
Attention to First Ladies’ wardrobes is not a new phenomenon. As far back as the 1860s, newspapers commented on Mary Todd Lincoln’s extravagant gowns, which were made of expensive silks at a time when the country was in the throes of the Civil War. Her “vanity,” as the press called it, contrasted with her husband’s “common man” image built on his humble background.
Nowadays, stylists work to ensure that images are cohesive. Even fashion-lover Jackie Kennedy enlisted Oleg Cassini, a former costume designer for Paramount Studios, to help her craft a simple image that would still allow her to incorporate her high-end tastes. While she continued to choose designer brands, doing so in simple silhouettes helped make this high-society woman more relatable for the average American.
But a First Lady’s fashion choices can affect more than the public’s perceptions of the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In the 1920s, Grace Coolidge personified the early women’s movement, bearing her arms and legs and indicating that societal change had arrived at the highest levels of government.
In the past four years, none of Michelle Obama’s fashion choices have escaped media scrutiny. The judgment has largely been positive, with Time calling her sense of style “groundbreaking.” But much of what Obama has done hearkens back to Kennedy’s classic feminine silhouettes, updated with a splash of color and a literal flair in hemlines.
Still, much like President Barack Obama has gotten flack for the size of his American flag pin worn during Monday’s presidential debate, Michelle has received criticism for the smallest details of her wardrobe. In July 2011, for instance, she drew fire for wearing a dress by British label Alexander McQueen at the Chinese state dinner. Overall, however, her fashion sense has contributed to the image of strength and resoluteness that Barack has attempted to portray.
Ann Romney’s wardrobe has received less positive reviews as she has struggled to develop a coherent image. Large prints, which Romney seems to prefer, rarely translate well on television; the flamboyant floral frock she wore on Live with Kelly and Michael in September appeared garish, not presidential.
Busy prints also run the risk of being too youthful and stand in sharp contrast to Michelle’s bold solids and subtly printed fabrics. Romney may be older — 63 to Michelle’s 48 — but embracing her age gracefully would serve her better than trying to disguise it.
Where it counts, though, Romney has made smarter choices. Her red suit at the Republican National Convention conveyed the sort of strength that had previously been attributed only to her opponent. More guidance may still be needed, however: a scalloped leather skirt worn on the Tonight Show seemed like yet another attempt to appear younger.