On the Road

The Tricky Traveling Wardrobe

When celebrities step outside, they face high expectations to be both fashionable and accessible to the middle class. Robin Givhan on the public’s fashion judgment call.

07.19.11 2:57 AM ET

It was hard not to be charmed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their recent North American visit. They are an attractive, charismatic couple who appear to be living a fairy tale. But the obsession with the duchess’s frocks spiraled into the ridiculous, most notably when her willingness to forgo a traveling stylist was treated as an act of courage—akin to going into battle without any Kevlar.

To be fair, lesser celebrities consult a village of beauty experts before even making a Starbucks run. So Duchess Kate’s decision to dress to her own drummer was certainly a refreshing show of confidence. But something else was fueling the breathlessness over her every costume change. It’s the same overwrought emotion that sparked a thousand fashion blogs about first lady Michelle Obama. It has already given at least one Republican first-lady hopeful some big public-relations troubles. And the 2012 campaign is promising to make this cultural dysfunction all the more blatant. When it comes to elitism and everyman, we have a complicated, ambivalent, and often nonsensical relationship to both.

During her 11-day tour, the duchess displayed an accessible aesthetic, an eye for what flatters her figure, and a keen understanding of propriety. Her lavender Alexander McQueen gown, for instance, struck a fine note on the red carpet in Los Angeles. And her emerald-green day dress by Diane von Furstenberg was lovely as well. Yet neither frock was a fashion thunderbolt.

What got people worked up is the fact that the same woman wore an evening gown that oozed lush exclusivity and a work dress that could be found in the wardrobe of any professional woman. The duchess managed to portray herself as both elite and down-to-earth—comfortable with her new stature yet unwilling to shun her pre-aristocratic life.

A similar dynamic plays out daily with Mrs. Obama, whose working-class upbringing is her political narrative. We embrace these women for their ability to ping-pong between designer and mass-market worlds. But we are also vigilant and judgmental in monitoring that balance. Have they turned their backs on us? Or are they still on our side? Have they done us proud? Or stumbled in high cotton?

The middle class claims these women, expecting that each grand flourish be balanced by a penny-pinching gesture. No matter how much success these leading ladies achieve or how large their bank accounts grow, their past always lays claim to our present.

Consider poor platinum-helmeted Callista Gingrich, who not so long ago made herself over from Capitol Hill staffer into well-to-do political wife with the gleaming façade of a country-club doyenne. Gingrich miffed the media with her affection for Tiffany jewelry. Such a narcissistic show pony! But Cindy McCain, the platinum-haired, elaborately coifed beer heiress, once wore a single outfit that—jewels included—Vanity Fair estimated as worth $300,000. The overwhelming public response? A what-do-you-expect shrug. After all, she’d been rich a very long time.

It’s unfair. The most recent inductees to the patrician class are the ones who have to constantly prove they remain plain-spoken and unaffected. But how does one do that in these treacherous, confess-for-cash times?

In the 1980s, Princess Diana embraced AIDS patients when so many people shunned them. And recently, the world was reminded that former first lady Betty Ford, in the ‘70s, broke a taboo to talk bluntly about her breast cancer.

But now addiction, abuse, illness are out in the open. There are few shadow topics to bravely bring into the light. Political life has become so polarized that there’s practically no such thing as a morally driven statement—just a partisan one.

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Instead, folks increasingly turn to tiny symbols to speak a complicated truth about normalcy and understanding. Millionaire candidates tweet mindless banter. They adopt an aw-shucks patois. Duchess Kate wore her skinny jeans multiple times in Canada! Thus, she must be humble, clear-eyed, and so very real.

These new members of the upper echelons must deal with a cruelly capricious audience. When Mrs. Obama visited South Africa and Botswana this summer, no one went into a tizzy when she wore Alexander Wang’s $695 Doodle print jeans to paint a mural. Yet the Internet imploded with working-class outrage two years earlier when she wore $540 Lanvin sneakers to a Washington food bank.

What gives? At home, they must be one of us. On the road, as our representatives, they are allowed—even encouraged, for the sake of our tribal vanity—to be (a little) better than us.

One can only imagine what awaits Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain (those mourner’s-bench double-breasted suits!), self-made megamillionaire Mitt Romney, and all the rest as they vie for the White House. Each must be reassuringly regular, yet ready for the big stage. And if the pressure doesn’t trip them up, our fickle demands almost certainly will.