12.13.10

Move Over, Michelle!

She may not have Obama's star wattage, but Dr. Jill Biden has become a style sensation. Isabel Wilkinson on how the second lady dresses "sexy," the economics of "The Biden Bump," and how Jill borrows her family's clothes.

When Dr. Jill Biden appeared on Larry King Live alongside her husband, Vice President Joe Biden, in November, she discussed education, the economy, and the military. But before the cameras started rolling, Biden’s aides were busy helping the second lady select a dress that would be best for the appearance. They held up multiple options under the light in the studio, until Biden eventually ruled that a blue Diane von Furstenberg dress with a silk sachet and capped sleeves would do the trick. She had worn the dress multiple times on the campaign trail—but it was no problem to recycle a dress for Larry King.

A 59-year-old schoolteacher and grandmother, Dr. Jill Biden is an unlikely style icon. While Michelle Obama’s every outfit is scrutinized by the media and emulated by shoppers, Biden has developed a quiet following of women who feel she is an exemplar of everyday American style. When she appeared alongside Obama at a rally for Barbara Boxer in October, commenters on the Mrs. O blog, which chronicles the first lady’s style, went wild for the second lady. “Jill Biden is the winner here!” one wrote. “Dr. Biden is ROCKIN’!!!” said another.

Since entering the White House, Biden has defined herself as a working mother who juggles her teaching job in Alexandria with appearances alongside her husband. She has championed causes such as Delaware Boots on the Ground, which supports military families, and Biden Breast Health Initiative, which educates girls about the importance of early detection of breast cancer. Fittingly, Biden wears functional clothes that allow her to transition from the classroom to the White House.

“Jill Biden has a very classic American sportswear look that a lot of women can relate to,” says Mary Tomer, who runs the Mrs. O blog. Biden sticks to classics such as a tailored men’s shirt or a simple shift dress while, as Tomer puts it, “Michelle Obama is always experimenting with different looks.” And while Obama often wears a carefully curated mix of designer pieces and cheap items—everything from John Galliano to Talbots—Dr. Biden seems to wear inexpensive clothes because they work for her, rather than to prove a point.

Biden caught America’s eye quite literally in 2009, when she wore a bright-red strapless dress designed by Reem Acra to the Inaugural Ball. As the designer told The Daily Beast, Biden’s appearance in her dress was “the best thing I’ve done in my career.” As she glided around the stage, one thing was immediately clear: The second lady wasn’t afraid of the spotlight. And since then, she’s stunned in a series of bright dresses that have attracted attention, such as a purple beaded gown, also by Acra, which she wore to meet the archbishop of Constantinople New Rome last year. “She cares about the people around her,” the designer says. “And how she dresses is all about the people around her, too. When she’s wearing purple, it’s about the pope.”

Gallery: Jill Biden’s Style

But there’s another thing about Dr. Biden: She’s hot. She’s a grandmother with a size 2 frame who often wears sample sizes from the designers who fit her for clothes. As such, she looks downright sexy—which has caused some to raise an eyebrow. “ Jill Biden: Too Sexy for Her Boots?” one headline asked last year. While Mrs. Obama frequently wears kitten heels and a full skirt, Dr. Biden isn’t afraid of sky-high stilettos. “She does have sex appeal, but she’s always professional, and dresses in a way that she’s taken seriously,” says Milly designer Michelle Smith. Laura Dunn, who blogs about Biden at Political Style, says that while Biden’s style is occasionally revealing, “I have never thought that any of Dr. Biden’s outfits have been inappropriate.”

Michelle Obama’s fashion has been valued as a $2.7 billion industry. But when Biden wears a dress, there’s less evidence of an economic bump for the designer. On Inauguration Day in 2009, she chose a gray tweed dress by Milly. The company reissued the dress, calling it the Dr. Biden, and it became a bestseller. But according to Milly’s designer Michelle Smith, there wasn’t evidence of a “Dr. Biden bump” in sales. “It’s hard to determine that without asking the customer, ‘Did you see this dress on Dr. Biden before you purchased it?’” she says. “It’s a little bit intangible, but I think it definitely helped.” The lack of a Dr. Biden bump is due, in part, to the fact that she makes fewer public appearances than the first lady. But it is also likely because she wears fewer statement pieces. Compared to the first lady, it’s much less obvious who Dr. Biden is wearing, rather than what: functional American clothes.

For one thing, Jill often borrows clothes from the many other Biden women. (The boots she wore with the Milly dress on Inauguration Day, for example, belonged to her daughter-in-law, Hallie.) But Biden’s appeal is also due to her job at the Northern Virginia Community College, where she teaches three English classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The other days of the week, she’s busy in her office, and shuttling around D.C. for official events. Her staff knows to keep Tuesdays and Thursdays completely clear, but there are odd days when official business coincides with her day job, and she’s left to manage both. Such was the case at the annual Teachers of the Year event last year, when teachers from around the country came to D.C. to meet with the vice president and second lady. The event was scheduled on a Tuesday evening, which forced Dr. Biden to pull off a superwoman move: She ran into the bathroom in the English department on campus, changed in a stall, and emerged in a suit, ready for the big event.

And just as she did on the set of Larry King Live, Biden clearly plays a major hand in selecting her own clothes. Though designers send her look books and images from their collections, Biden steers clear of the celebrity-dressing circus that has defined a large corner of the fashion industry and, as one source close to her says, is still anonymous enough on the street to hit the mall before big events. “They’re a hardworking, all-American couple,” Tomer says of the Bidens. “And that’s projected in Jill Biden’s wardrobe.” Alongside Mrs. Obama, with whom she has become close since they assumed their roles, Biden’s fashion sends a message that she can do it all—without spending hoards of money. “I think it’s an inspiration to see Jill Biden, who has accomplished so much, clearly taking care of herself—and on top of it has a great sense of style,” says Tomer. “These women are total packages, and their fashion is just the icing on top.”

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Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast based in Los Angeles.