On Culture

Dressing To Impress Upon Memory

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, June 8, 2008

The night Barack Obama made his speech as the first African American to top a major party's ticket, the pictures really had the responsibility for telling the story. They captured the faces in the crowd. Obama's own look of awe. And the color of his skin.

Sometimes you have to take a picture of something to make it real, to make it stick. Our memory of it will not suffice. We need the pictures of the wedding or the first birthday. Some people take photographs of the deceased at their funerals, the photos of their death serving as evidence of their life.

It's human nature to pause and think about what to wear for your own little historical moment. What will you wear for graduation, for instance? Will you take the "pomp and circumstance" literally and get a new suit or a fancy dress? Or will you play it cool and attempt to underscore your belief that matriculation was inevitable and thus no big deal? So you decide to wear a pair of Bermuda shorts underneath your robe.

Barack and Michelle Obama dressed for history Tuesday night in a blend of the patriotic, the regal, the authoritative and the fashionable. They entered the arena in St. Paul, Minn., together and did a short round of handshaking before climbing onto the stage where he claimed the Democratic nomination for president.

The eye could not help but zero in on that tiny rectangle on the lapel of the senator's black suit: a flag pin. That little accessory -- the fashion industry would call it a brooch -- had caused such a stir in the world of pundits, bloggers and those who worry whether a candidate knows the right way to order a cheese steak or a beer. It would be part of the historical record on this night. It flashed from his suit like a kind of dutiful peace offering, akin to when your mother tells you to put on that shirt your grandmother gave you because she's coming over for dinner. Just do it. Arguing will be more hassle than it's worth.

He was wearing a pale blue tie, which has become the color four-in-hand that politicians wear when they don't want to look like they're being a cliche.

But, of course, it was Michelle Obama who stood out because, contrary to the case back in the days of breeches and waistcoats, it is now the woman who shows off the colorful plumage. She was wearing a violet sheath with a wide black belt and matching shoes with heels that hard-liners would call impractical but that Carrie Bradshaw would use for jogging. Michelle Obama accessorized her dress with her signature strand of Wilma Flintstone pearls.

The most notable aspect of her dress was that it was sleeveless. In the preposterously narrowly defined sartorial world of first ladyness, this means something other than it is June and thus, warm.

Generally, the women who have occupied the White House have been loath to appear sleeveless in public, as if the upper arms are some sort of political erogenous zone. They also tend to wardrobe themselves in suits that are tasteful above everything else -- including comfortable, flattering or even vaguely fashionable. So Obama was bucking tradition.

It is also true that a significant number of women, beginning as early as 30-something, don't particularly enjoy revealing their arms because they are self-conscious that theirs do not look like Madonna's sinewy limbs. While Michelle Obama doesn't look as though she spends half her day in a yoga half push-up -- chaturanga dandasana, to be specific -- she looks fit and she's got the arms to prove it. That sleeveless dress announces her strength. Read that as literal or metaphorical.

When she moved through the crowd and onto the stage, she had the body language of an athlete. There's power in her gait and it is juxtaposed with a classic style of dress that popular culture will forever associate with Jackie Kennedy: the sheath, the pearls, the little cardigan. That was the wardrobe of Camelot's hothouse flower. But unlike Kennedy, whose wispy voice and fragile affect belied her inner strength, Michelle Obama brings strength to those clothes. She is a post-Title IX political spouse. One who offers her husband a hug and a kiss but also a fist bump of team spirit.

The choice of violet stands out because it's not one of the primary colors so beloved by political spouses. Historically, it's regal. Today, it's fashionable. Michelle Obama seems to choose her hues based on what looks best on her, ignoring the political how-to manual. And so it's no surprise that we should see colors like violet -- or chartreuse -- that are atypical. She is not standard first lady material. She is a black woman dressing to flatter her skin tone. Can shades of pumpkin or mustard be far behind?

Just before Barack Obama celebrated his victory, Hillary Clinton celebrated her tenacity. She was in New York and she took the stage with Bill Clinton, who was wearing a dark suit and a burgundy tie. One desperately wanted to speed-dial one of his aides to suggest he stop wearing those red and orange ties because they have a tendency to make him look inflamed. As Hillary Clinton spoke, she was smiling that talk-show smile -- the one that never wavers. She was dressed all in cobalt blue: her pants, her jacket and the blouse or tunic she had on underneath it. Stylists will often advise clients to dress in a single hue to elongate their figure, but they're usually talking about subdued colors such as black or navy. The only people who dress from head to toe in bright blue are more than likely telling you to put your seat tray in the upright and locked position.

What would possess a woman seeking the highest office to dress in a manner that only Veruca Salt could love? How about this as a subliminal message: You want to see states turn blue on election night, Democrats? You wanna see a map full of blue? I am blue!

Three months have passed since John McCain became the presumptive Republican nominee. He wore a pale blue shirt that evening along with a burgundy tie. And the softer tones made him look a little less stiff without veering into the overgrown schoolboy territory of his crewneck sweaters. He was not wearing a flag pin, but he doesn't need one. His very presence speaks of sacrifice.

Mostly, though, we remember Cindy McCain, who was wearing a pale yellow princess-line coatdress with inverted pleats and had her hair pulled back into a loose bun. She looked prim and pretty and rather steely -- like a DNA combo platter of Miss Porter, Miss Manners and Miss America.

It was their glittering moment in the spotlight. They didn't make history. But they certainly made memories.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company