Campaign Fashion

Debate Night: Ann Vs. Michelle

Michelle Obama recycled a dress for Monday’s final presidential debate—while Ann Romney looked ready for the White House. Isabel Wilkinson on the strong messages they sent.

Perhaps it was a symbol of the recession: she didn't wear a brand new designer outfit. And she didn't wear a blinding pink suit, either. No, in Florida on Monday night at the third presidential debate, Michelle Obama chose a subtle dress she had worn a month before.

The first lady appeared in the crowd at Lynn University in the same black and gray Thom Browne dress she wore to the second night of the Democratic National Convention in early September. It was an interesting choice for debate night—when the candidates’ wives traditionally have chosen to stand out from the crowd in bright, original designs. Perhaps it represented her exhaustion with the never-ending wardrobe change of the campaign, an I’ll-grab-what’s-in-the-front-of-my-closet attitude. But more likely it was a symbol of restraint, an appeal to all Americans: really, I'm just like you. She knows the fashion press will notice the repeat—after all, her gray nail polish launched a nation-wide hunt—and being spun as an Everywoman is probably exactly what she wants.

And a symbol of restraint for Michelle Obama is ultimately a good thing. Somehow, it’s a woman on the other side of the race, Janna Ryan, who has distinguished herself as a champion of affordable fashion on the campaign trail so far. Ryan has worn several dresses from Talbots, uncreative and cheap professional pieces that surrender in the face of fashion but boost her “working mom” status.

Obama, on the other hand, has interpreted the concept of affordability in a different way: her message, as it was in 2008, is that you don’t have to spent exorbitant sums tol look fashionable. She has championed several young designers in the past few months. She wore a custom-made dress by Detroit native Tracy Reese at the Democratic National Convention that will be reproduced for less than $500, according to the designer. She has repeatedly worn Prabal Gurung, a Nepalese-American designer who has become the toast of the fashion world and who just announced an upcoming collaboration with Target. And she has twice worn Miss Wu, an affordable contemporary line by Jason Wu (who designed her Inaugural gown in 2009), which will be on sale only at Nordstrom in January.

Ann Romney, on the other hand, wore a silk green top and cream and green silk skirt to the debate on Monday night. Unsurprisingly, it was not as fashion-forward as Obama’s choice, and with a big, pleated floral skirt, it was a little frumpy. But the look was adventurous for Romney, who appeared to begin the campaign in overly literal interpretations of how she thought a first lady should dress. But now she’s gotten used to it. The ensemble on Monday demonstrated the ease and facility with which she is now styled on the trail, a creative assembly of different items to achieve a polished look. But it was also throwback. The bell skirt and helmet of blond hair defiantly recalled the look of a 1950s housewife. She has finally grown more confident with her style: she’s been told she has to dress like a first lady, and maybe, just maybe, does she finally look the part.