Anyone who has caught a glimpse of the presidential candidates’ wives on the campaign trail knows that safe, boxy suits are not in the fashion vocabulary of either the Democratic first lady or the Republican who aspires to replace her. The appearance of Michelle Obama and Ann Romney in similarly full-skirted dresses at the third and final presidential debate prompted two editors at the Atlantic to launch into an online dialogue pondering the abundance of dresses showing up on the political stump.
Although the 1960s-style frocks seen on the cult TV show “Mad Men” have had some impact on fashion, I don’t think that either political wife is channeling a tamped-down mid-century housewife or aping the rigidly constructed, unforgiving clothes of that era. Nor do I think wearing a dress is an attempt by either woman to be seen as less threatening.
They’re really just following current trends, and by doing so, they come across as more hip and appealing (which is at least part of what they’re trying to convey as they are out campaigning). Dresses are popular, more professional women wear them and sleeves are optional year-round. It’s all part of a shift toward a freer, more body-conscious style of dressing that many working women -- except perhaps corporate lawyers and bankers -- are adopting.
Far from making them look somehow meek, the dresses that Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have picked for the most part make them look “fresh and modern” (as fashion editors love to say) and approachable -- all things that serve their husbands’ needs. Switching from the pants suit or skirt suit to a dress is the female equivalent of the presidential candidates in jackets and dress shirts shedding their ties -- something they’ve been doing more often. Just as professional women long ago shunned confining foundation garments, they’re now dismissing boring suit jackets and trousers.
From the start of her husband’s first presidential campaign, Michelle Obama seems to have known this, wearing unapologetically feminine dresses in interesting prints and edgy cuts by forward-looking designers such as Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and L’Wren Scott. She wore Michael Kors to the second debate and Thom Browne -- who rose to fame as a cutting-edge designer for men -- to the third debate. The closest she’s come to a suit was the deep purple Preen outfit with cropped jacket that she wore to the first debate.
And though Ann Romney -- who’s more than a decade older than Michelle Obama -- is more old-school (for example, her red Oscar de la Renta at the Republican convention), she looks like she's taken a page from the first lady's fashion playbook, turning up on the campaign trial in figure-hugging wrap dresses, close-fitting aqua pants and platform heels she could have borrowed from rising fashion icon Catherine Middleton.
But if Clinton were out on the campaign trail -- hey, maybe even she would be in a dress.