While the mainstream newspapers dissect Barack Obama’s speech as he marches towards the White House, wife Michelle Obama’s dress sense is grabbing attention in the popular press and the blogosphere. Notably, her propensity to wear off-the-rack or chainstore dresses as a savvy nod to the recession which is biting deep in the US.
In June this year she appeared on The View, a talk show, wearing an off-the-rack, black and white $148 dress designed by Donna Ricco. Subsequently dubbed the “Michelle Obama Dress”, it sold out within days and has a six-month waiting list. Some of her outfits have turned her favoured designer Mario Pinto into an overnight fashion sensation and the fake gobstopper pearls she’s worn repeatedly has shown a woman not afraid to recycle accessories at a time when splurging may be seen as going against the grain of belt-tightening.
Michelle’s fashion sense has seen her being compared to the iconic Jacqueline Kennedy, but most of the praise is coming from middle class America, which says the woman whose husband may be the next US president is one of them for shunning international luxury brands she can well afford.
There’s a big debate in the US about whether your fashion taste can improve your chances of political success. Michelle isn’t alone in the deliberation with which she chooses her outfits. Closer home, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra caused a stir in Delhi by turning up for a crucial parliamentary session last month in a tight-fitting white shirt, smart black trousers, topped with a wide belt, signalling that the new Indian woman is modern and global.
Priyanka’s fashion sense highlighted a generational divide over what constitutes correct attire for such occasions as female parliamentarians normally favour cotton or silk saris or the salwar kameez. Brother Rahul Gandhi has followed his father’s legacy by dressing in white kurta pyjama to signal continuity and an upholding of tradition.
Uttar Pradesh leader Mayawati — the woman dubbed the “Untouchables Queen” who runs one of India’s poorest states — wears diamonds and silk to show the Dalit community that one of their own can aspire to high office and wealth. She also had an image makeover — from oily ponytails to short bobbed hair — as further visibility of her social mobility. Former model Carla Bruni went from hot and sexy pin-up girl to conservative pearls-and-twinset chic after marrying French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Carla has swapped heels for pumps so that she does not tower over her short husband, bright colours for greys and mauves, and her hemlines have dropped.
Michelle Obama, meanwhile, continues to signal that she is all-American, educated, and not afraid of chainstore couture or recycling her clothes, reflecting the sensibilities of the broader American public. Not so successful has been the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Her attempts at making her 71-year-old husband appear younger by donning fluorescent red patent leather jackets and hot-pink blouses on the campaign trail has flopped.
(inputs from Minakshi Saini)