Four More Years

Election Night 2012: Fashion of Jubilation And Mourning

In their respective Election Night speeches, the clothes of the Obama and Romney families told the story of victory and defeat.

11.07.12 5:03 PM ET

It wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning—after the polls had closed, Ohio had been painted blue, and the Romney campaign had shaken off the disbelief that their man had lost—that television viewers were able to see the well-choreographed tableau of the newly reelected president, the first lady, and their daughters. It followed one of the saddest and most profoundly mournful images of defeat.

When the Obamas walked on stage to the roar of the crowd at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, theirs was a look of quiet jubilation and maturity.

During the endless campaign, President Obama had often talked about how he had the scars to prove that he had been fighting for change, and early Wednesday morning he looked more like a tired and gray-haired statesman than a starry-eyed idealist. He wore the official political uniform: a dark suit, a lapis blue tie and a white shirt—and, of course, a flag-pin on his lapel. It remains the must-have accessory, the absence of it destined to whip up a firestorm of pettiness.

Mrs. Obama was there in her Bordeaux-colored, brocade Michael Kors dress. She had shopped her closet, and it subtly echoed the deep red and black Narciso Rodriguez dress she’d worn to their victory celebration four years ago in Grant Park. Its style wasn’t as controversial, but it played the same tricks on the eye of making a viscerally patriotic hue more complex. Perhaps, for good luck, she once again accessorized with a little black cardigan. (The president had his Election Day superstition: he made sure to play basketball.)

The family stood in front of a living backdrop of smiling, applauding, flag-waving supporters. The president would soon talk about the changes, the struggles, and the lessons of the last four years. But he really didn’t need to detail how much time had passed and how quickly it had gone by. The sight of the Obama daughters, Sasha and Malia, made that point in a blink of an eye. Their presence on stage, looking so much older and more mature, was an urgent reminder of the preciousness of time and how easily it slips away.

Malia walked out alongside her mother, the two of them standing nearly shoulder to shoulder now. The blue of the 14-year-old’s skirt matched her father’s tie.

Sasha, now 11 years old, was no longer the impish child but a preteen with a sense of age-appropriate glamour. Dressed in shades of green from lime to olive, she had a tangle of glittery chains around her neck.

Where did the time go? How much time is left?

The family did not linger for long before the president began his speech. And when he did, he was not positioned in front of a stolid stage set. He was not projecting outward to a crowd like a professor at a lectern. Instead, his speech was practically in the round. The crowd, a demographic collage to match the one that got him reelected, smiled and nodded their nonverbal interjections. They were the choir behind his powerful bully pulpit.

There was life in this image—a call and response. The victor was not alone.

It was a stark contrast to the sight of Mitt Romney striding out by himself in Boston to stand before an enormous set emblazoned with American flags. The former governor of Massachusetts was also wearing a dark suit with a navy-striped tie that looked a smidge narrower than his usual conservative fare. His flag pin was bigger than Obama’s.

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In defeat, Romney was isolated on stage. He was left to face his loss, before the world’s media, alone. He thanked his supporters and his vice-presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. He described his wife, Ann, as the “love of my life.” 

Romney was gracious, but he looked pained. He promised that he and Ann would pray for the reelected president. But his tone was flat and brusque. He did not attempt poetry or elegant rhetoric. His words carried all the emotion of a CEO bidding his board of directors farewell.

When he turned and walked away from the lectern, he did so with a quick wave and a “Thanks guys.” What else could he have said? Something inspiring, perhaps. Something healing. These were such sad, forgettable last words.

It was with relief that one watched his family join him on stage—rescuing him from his visual solitude. Mrs. Romney hugged him. She was wearing a slim-fitting bright red dress with three-quarter-length sleeves. Her blonde hair was twisted into an up-do. She looked pretty. She looked like a first lady. She had dressed for victory photographs.

Then the Romney sons began to surround their parents, Taggart—the oldest—and all the rest, whose names the public no longer has to worry about keeping straight. Their wives were there too, the ones that Romney had thanked for keeping the home fires burning while the men were out hunting for votes with their dad.

The sons were in sober suits. Their wives seemed to have made a collective decision to wear shades of black and white. It was a smart move visually. With so many immediate family members stuffed into a photograph, the simple color palette would keep the images from looking chaotic. And Mrs. Romney would stand out in her classic red dress.

But in the face of defeat, all that black looked rather depressing on stage.

Ryan and his wife, Janna, waved their goodbyes as well. He was wearing a black suit, a silver tie, and a chagrined expression. She was wearing a red tartan dress that complimented Mrs. Romney’s but didn’t overshadow it—proper second-lady etiquette.

In looking at the photographs of the foursome standing together, one can’t help but wonder about Mrs. Ryan. Who is she? What does her voice sound like? For the duration of the campaign she was little more than a résumé wrapped in inexpensive frocks.

The television cameras cut away from the Republican ticket quickly. There was no need to give the defeated generous airtime. Besides, Romney wasn’t lingering. The images had said it all.