Honestly, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Sarah Brown. I mean the poor woman tries her best – you can see it in all those coordinated shoes and bags. But when you’re up against a former fashion model like Carla Bruni and a freshly-minted style icon like Michelle Obama in a joint photo-op, what chance does a regular woman like her really have? Yes, that’s right: zilch.
I’m sure when Sarah Macaulay married Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer to Tony Blair’s Prime Minister, she never thought that the style stakes would be upped so dramatically by the time her spouse became PM. After all, her predecessor Cherie Blair wasn’t really a sylph-like figure topping all the best-dressed lists. And across the pond, the American First Lady, Hillary Clinton, was a bit of a style slob, making do with utilitarian pant-suits in primary colours, while her predecessor, the matronly Barbara Bush, dressed like everyone’s dumpy grandmother.
So, the bar was set pretty low when it came to how wives of political leaders were required to dress and how we expected them to look.
And then along came Carla Bruni and changed all the rules with a swish of her perfectly blow-dried hair. A whirlwind courtship, a hurried wedding ceremony, and in a matter of months, France had a new First Lady, who could give any supermodel a run for her money – mostly because she had been a supermodel in her time.
Once in the Elysee Palace, Bruni dumped her rock chick persona (she went out with both Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger for many years – and knowing her, probably at the same time – and is a singer-songwriter of no particular distinction in her own right) and went into full-on lady-like mode.
No more jeans and T-shirts for the new Mrs Sarkozy, she now wore only custom-made Dior, right down to her flat pumps (so as to not tower above her Napoleonic husband). So, it was all beautifully-tailored long dresses, cinched at the waist with a narrow belt to show off Ms Bruni-Sarkozy’s teeny-tiny proportions and glamorous off-shoulder gowns for when she did duty in the evenings at state banquets and the like.
Not since Jackie Kennedy had a First Lady been quite as stunning or dressed so elegantly. And even Jackie had been a bit of an aberration in her time. (Remember that old joke: what would have happened if the Russian leader Nikita Kruschev had been assassinated instead of the American President, John F Kennedy? Well, Greek multi-millionaire Aristotle Onasis would certainly not have married Mrs Krushchev!)
But Bruni was not destined to rule the style salons alone for long. She soon had strong competition from the statuesque Michelle Obama, the new First Lady of the United States. At her inauguration, Michelle blew everyone away with her white, almost-bridal, floor-length, off-shoulder gown, as she danced with her husband at the first of several balls, and a new star was launched on the international fashion firmament.
Now the bar is set very high indeed when it comes to how the wives of political leaders are expected to look: they have to be slim, tall, impeccably styled, perfectly coiffed and immaculately made up. It’s not really part of the job description but it certainly helps if they have perfect upper arm definition (like Mrs Obama, whose husband famously joked that everyone, both Democrats and Republicans, agreed on her right to bare arms – oh, how they laughed!).
So, it’s not surprising that the slightly frumpy Sarah doesn’t really pass the test when it comes to membership of the Glamorous First Wives Club. And the poor woman is shown up at every international gathering, where she is made to stand beside the towering Michelle or the simpering Carla, looking like the plain sister who never quite understood that brown is not her colour.
Such is the pressure on First Wives these days to look absolutely amazing at all times, that even the beauteous Bruni was castigated by the international press for getting it wrong when she met the Spanish Crown Princess, a bona fide stunner in her own right. Carla’s dress, it was noted bitchily, was far too prudish and her derriere didn’t look quite as high and firm as that of the Princess as they walked up a flight of steps together.
So, when even Carla can get it wrong on occasion, what hope can we possibly hold out for poor dear Sarah?
I think the only way Britain can recover in the First Wives Style Stakes is if Labour loses to the Conservatives and David Cameron becomes the new Prime Minister. His wife, Samantha, who works for the iconic British brand Smythsons, epitomises a certain kind of Sloany, upper-class English chic, which always intimidates the rest of the world with its easy assumption of privilege and power, and is bound to be a hit with the international media.
As for us back home in India, we just have to pin our hopes on the Gandhi kids I guess. Whatever you may think of their politics, you’ve got to admit that they look pretty good in their khadi kurtas and handloom saris as they hit the campaign trail. And they can rock the jeans-and-white-shirt look just as well once they’re back in the city.