First Ladies and the Fabric of the Nation

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, September 7, 2008

The season of political conventions ended Thursday in St. Paul, Minn., just as the spring 2009 fashion season was getting underway in New York. The convergence of politics and fashion brings together the substantive and the superficial, with neither industry having a monopoly on frivolousness and both relying on the power of appearances.

For fashion designers, the clothing styles of the two potential first ladies are of particular interest because they carry with them the possibility of launching trends or transforming once unknown brands into household names. Indeed, Michelle Obama has already given the Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto more of a national presence than her tasteful and minimal sheaths ever won on their own. And Obama helped New York's Donna Ricco sell out a black-and-white sundress just by wearing it on "The View."

As a country, we remain predisposed to assessing the attire of women with an eye toward meaning and revelation. Some might say it is sexist to do so. They are wrong.

There are plenty of occasions when men provide tantalizing fashion fodder. For instance, it was no coincidence that Barack Obama chose the Chicago-based Hart Schaffner Marx to create the custom suit he wore to accept the Democratic nomination for president. The company is one of the few boardroom-quality suitmakers that can still tout their products as made in America. A political point was being made with that suit, which also featured traditional pleated trousers instead of the more youthful and fashionable flat-front ones.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer delivered his speech at the Democratic National Convention wearing a bolo tie. No man goes on national television dressed like he just scraped a cow pie off his boots unless he's intent on underscoring his cattle country bona fides.

We focus on the women, however, because their clothes are so obviously interesting and because the fashion business is essentially a woman's world. If designers are to gain any advantage, most likely they will have a woman to thank. The men always play second fiddle.

It is not sexist to have noticed that Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered her convention speech dressed in head-to-toe mango. Only an obstinately unaware person would have ignored this question: Senator, why are you dressed like a tropical fruit? One assumes it was to ensure an eye-catching photo for the history books and to underscore her "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits" legacy.

The ensembles of the potential first ladies matter most of all because the position remains so stubbornly retro and so purely symbolic. It is a troublesome combination of hostess, national Madonna and champion of some wholly uncontroversial cause. (We had trouble dealing with a first lady who was a lawyer. Will we ever be able to stomach one, as in France, who is a pop singer?) The first lady serves as a reflection of her husband's administration and of womanhood, and one suspects that when there is a first gentleman, he will bear the burden of epitomizing an ideal of manhood and will be forced to wrestle with accusations that he is too much of a metrosexual, a dandy, a he-man or a wimp. Almost certainly, we will obsess about his ties.

When Cindy McCain made her first appearance at the Republican National Convention, she was wearing a buttercup-yellow shirt dress with a flipped-up collar by Seventh Avenue designer Oscar de la Renta. As is the current fashion, the dress looked as though the designer had found some inspiration in the early 1960s world of "Mad Men." It was feminine, reserved and lovely. Ballpark price for a de la Renta dress: $3,000.

De la Renta, who has been in business for more than 30 years, has become the unofficial couturier to first ladies, having designed inaugural gowns for both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. When each first settled into the East Wing, both Clinton and Bush were loyal to their local designers. But eventually, they made the smart decision to turn to the expertise and experience of de la Renta. He's an extraordinary designer who knows how to make a woman -- no matter her age -- look, quite simply, pretty. Not a lot of designers seem terribly interested in doing that.

Who can blame McCain for playing it safe? With Laura Bush standing alongside her on the convention stage wearing a cream-colored, embroidered de la Renta suit, it was a snapshot of fashion continuity. And an illustration of Washington's fashion rut. If there was any hint of a message in McCain's choice, it was the suggestion that she would carry on the Laura Bush tradition of reassuring, fully vetted style.

If fashion is politics -- and these days, what isn't? -- McCain has endorsed the status quo.

Yet with such a strong generation of new designers swaggering forth in New York over the coming week, it's disheartening to see such a lack of imagination. Why not embrace some of the industry's fresher names such as Peter Som or Derek Lam? Even Michael Kors and Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa, who aren't exactly new on the scene, have yet to get much East Wing attention. De la Renta may be rare in his abilities, but he is not alone.

When Michelle Obama made her convention speech, she wore a turquoise sheath by Pinto with a wide V-neckline. More than the silhouette of the dress, it was her decision to stick with her hometown dressmaker that was notable, and so far Pinto has served her well. For most of her time onstage, Obama was standing behind a lectern. Mostly, what one saw was the dress's neckline and it was both striking and flattering.

When her husband officially accepted the nomination, she embraced him onstage wearing a raspberry, lavender and black print silk dress by American designer Thakoon Panichgul, who has been in business only since 2004. The dress, with its slim bodice and A-line skirt, came from his 2009 resort collection. The designer is known for his sporty sensibility and his ability to combine unusual fabrics and sometimes jarring prints with relatively simple shapes. Ballpark price for one of his dresses: $1,500.

With a fashion risk, though, comes the possibility of failure. And the Thakoon dress -- as the label is formally called -- was too informal and failed to reflect the significance of the occasion. And with that fabric belt hanging down the back, it resembled a child's special-occasion frock rather than something suitable for a sophisticated 44-year-old. The flats reinforced the tea-party aesthetic.

Still, Obama has shown her willingness to embrace a new generation of designers, as well as industry veterans such as Isabel Toledo, who are not nestled in fashion's mainstream. She may offer them a chance to elbow their way into the national spotlight. And as they put their wares on the catwalk in the coming week, one hopes that some of them follow de la Renta's example and step up to the deceptively straightforward challenge of making a woman simply look pretty.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company