Election Season

Michelle Obama and Ann Romney: First Ladies of Style

Who cares who wore it better? Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are both fashion inspirations in their own way.

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With the presidential campaign entering its last frenetic weeks, election watchers have decided there is not enough metaphorical snarling and jabbing between the current president and the man who would replace him. So observers have ginned up a competition between the wives.

It all began in earnest with a couple of bright pink dresses that Michelle Obama and Ann Romney wore to the second presidential debate. That debate was in October, which also happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness month, a time when the nation’s landscape is aglow with symbolic pink merchandise, pink advocacy ribbons and pink rubber empowerment bracelets. Indeed, when President Barack Obama recently appeared on The Daily Show, a fuchsia bracelet dangled from his wrist.

So it was not surprising that Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney would have hot pink on the mind. (It also helps that it happens to be a color that photographs well--no small consideration for women in their position.) The first lady wore a Michael Kors sheath with a matching cropped jacket and traditional pearls. Mrs. Romney wore a short-sleeved, body conscious Oscar de la Renta dress with a necklace of green beads. They both looked lovely in this bold color, but decidedly different.

Nonetheless, they were subjected to more than a few who-wore-it-best analyses.

Most women, having come of age in the company of girls, know there are few things pettier—and meaner—than this sort of comparison. It is not an assessment of whether a woman looks her personal best or looks appropriate or has achieved whatever overarching goal she had set for her clothes in a given situation. It’s the worst sort of involuntary beauty pageant cliché. But it isn’t surprising.

Womankind has long known that style can be used as a weapon to mete out psychological torment. To outdress another woman is to diminish her on the public stage. To overdress is to reveal one’s own insecurity. To underdress is to invite public tsk-tsking. And to dress too similarly is to invite unfortunate comparisons. Indeed, when three other women arrived at a White House reception in 2006 wearing the same red Oscar de la Renta dress as Laura Bush, the first lady swiftly changed clothes. Hence, the often asked question among female friends and acquaintances before a special event: What are you going to wear?

An interest in fashion also seems to beget an assumption of selfishness and mean-spiritedness. To adorn the body is to pollute the soul. It’s all part of the fashion diva stereotype.

For example, each time Mrs. Obama met Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the former first lady of France, observers couldn’t wait for what they described as an impending fashion smackdown. Mrs. Obama and Bruni-Sarkozy, a former model, were not viewed as two women who might find easy common ground thanks to a shared appreciation of fashion. Instead, the perception was that they would attempt to outdo each other in the public eye. If both had been avid gardeners, would there have been talk of a tomato-growing competition?

All of this hyperbole about fashion gamesmanship could have been avoided if only Mrs. Romney had maintained her country club mom style. Instead, as the campaign has worn on, she has developed a more polished public aesthetic. It can be extravagant, such as when she relies on Seventh Avenue stalwart Oscar de la Renta. It can be down home with khakis and button-down shirts. And it can be flamboyant, as when she appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” wearing a black leather suit with provocative black heels. She does not shy away from bold prints. And she has an affinity for boisterous necklaces.

Mrs. Romney is not so much enamored with contemporary fashion and the ebb and flow of trends as she is interested in the kaleidoscope that makes up the frock business: the colors, fabrics and patterns that dazzle the eyes. She doesn’t have a signature, but she exudes an enthusiasm for fashion’s extensive buffet—sampling a bit of this and a bit of that.

Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, projects an interest in style—that conscious desire to create a definitive public image using fashion. She has established a personal code incorporating sheath dresses, cropped cardigans, distinctive belts and full-skirted feminine dresses delivered straight from the most contemporary designers.

The women have wholly different approaches to fashion. But it is their shared interest in it that connects them and distinguishes them from former first ladies Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Barbara Bush. One often thought these women would have been happiest if they could have gone through their time in the White House cloaked in a potato sack.

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Mrs. Romney may not have as keen an eye for personal style as the current first lady. But she clearly cares about clothes and seems to relate to them as a source of pleasure rather than as a utilitarian commodity. Whether she shops high or low, it’s all good news for the fashion industry. And one hopes that Mrs. Romney, a wealthy woman, doesn’t fall into the trap of being shamed by the cost of her clothes or continue bragging, through a spokesperson , about wearing 10-year-old evening gowns. What, exactly, is so valiant about that?

Instead of trying to determine who looks better in pink, both women should be congratulated for refusing to buy into the stereotype that fashion is inconsequential.

Fashion is not a competitive sport—at least it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t matter who wore a dress best, only that she wore it well.