Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy speak, but don't fight, through fashion

Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, two independent-minded fashionable women, will meet again this Tuesday at a private dinner for the Obamas and the Sarkozys.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

The ongoing narrative that precedes every meeting between first lady Michelle Obama and France's Carla Bruni-Sarkozy anticipates a fashion smackdown.

Make no mistake; each woman displays an especially confident way with her wardrobe. Bruni-Sarkozy, the former rock-star-dating model, has used the elegant lines and soft shades of gray from the quintessentially French brand Christian Dior to transform her gossip-magazine image into a stately persona. And Obama has used style to forge an image that is one part contemporary, accessible Everywoman and one part august, high-fashion enthusiast.

Yet rather than declare fashion a common interest that might draw the two women closer, it has been viewed as a source of antagonism and rivalry. Fashion has been treated like an international wedge issue.

The meeting between President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Washington and the planned private dinner for the two leaders and their wives on Tuesday will likely revive the wholly manufactured fashion competition that reached a full, frothing-at-the-mouth frenzy in spring 2009 when the women met in Strasbourg, France. The occasion was the NATO summit and the media set up the meeting as if it were going to be a runway walk-off. The encounter was described in terms normally reserved for gladiators: "fashion face-off," "two fashion titans clashed in sartorial battle," "the two wives will do battle again" and a "fashion showdown."

The tone suggested a catfight and sounded like an out-of-date, 1950s way of viewing two accomplished women. The interest in their style wasn't the problem. After all, they both approach fashion in ways that are significantly different from their predecessors and that make for compelling stories about both cultural and social changes. Fashion is nothing if not a barometer of shifting social mores.

Instead, what has been troubling is the language. All the hyperbole suggests the women might abruptly snatch off each other's brooches, collars and floppy bows in a kind of "I Love Lucy"-style, wardrobe-demolishing brawl. The verbiage doesn't acknowledge fashion as a discrete tool that can amplify and clarify one's personality. Instead, it impolitely treats fashion like the sum total of one's character. It's worth fighting about, as it were, because it's all they have.

The metaphors diminished each woman's stature by turning their public meetings into aesthetic wrestling matches. They became unwitting participants in a diplomatic edition of one of those supermarket magazine spreads that pit two similarly dressed actresses against each other under the headline: "Who Wore It Best?"

Power play

The language of fashion jousting leaves little room for nuance. And it relies on the old stereotype that two women -- particularly attractive ones -- must be in competition on the most superficial level, rather than engaged in a thoughtful assessment of style and how it plays on the world stage. The women are given short shrift and the fashion industry isn't exactly shown in the best light, either.

Make no mistake, women use fashion as a kind of power play all the time. They use it to bolster their confidence or to register their disapproval.

A woman who arrives at her best friend's wedding in a short, tight and revealing dress is not exactly communicating a message of love and support. She's offering herself as an alternative focal point on a day when the bride -- or now, brides -- should have no competition as the center of attention.

But the language of clothes can be complicated, filled with nuance and sometimes eloquent. In moments of anger or joy, the choices that people make about what to wear can be peeled back like an onion. Those decisions speak of common sense, cultural traditions, personal comfort, historical resonance and social appropriateness.

The notion of a fashion smackdown has the ring of something simplistic and base. It makes these two women -- Obama with her Ivy League degrees and the multilingual, musical Bruni-Sarkozy -- seem inarticulate, as if they are communicating in a smattering of grunts and exclamations, and are ultimately incapable of uttering anything more thoughtful than "My dress is prettier than your dress."

Silent spouses

That the fashion conversation would be reduced to something so simplistic is even more frustrating given the nature of their roles. Mostly, these women remain silent in these ceremonial situations. They stand in the background and strike a pose of nonchalant engagement. In April, folks saw photographs of the two women sightseeing. They were pictured sitting across from each other, ostensibly chatting during a one-on-one visit, but the public never heard their conversation.

Bruni-Sarkozy had removed her gray coat and it was crumpled into a pile next to her. Obama had taken off her black coat with its pattern of fuchsia poppies, but it was not in the frame. The only recourse was to try and find some significance in the image, in the way in which Bruni-Sarkozy treated her Dior coat with such dismissiveness. Or in Obama's decision to wear an ensemble from emerging fashion talent Thakoon Panichgul. The clothes matter because, frankly, that's almost all there is, in the form of a personal statement.

But a battle? Over frocks? Between grown-up women? Even as a joke or as entertaining hyperbole, the storyline traffics in out-of-date stereotypes.

Part of the beauty of contemporary fashion is that the rules have mostly fallen away and women -- even those in such ceremonial roles as first lady -- are free to make personal choices. Obama wore shorts on Air Force One and went sleeveless in an official portrait. Bruni-Sarkozy wore a revealingly tight gown at a formal dinner and has a wardrobe of informal ballet flats for official events. With those choices came repercussions: Tsk-tsking in the media. Disapproving party chatter among the masses. Debates about whether a garment was appropriate.

But the negative commentaries, indeed the disagreements, only underscore how women are liberating themselves from fashion's dictates -- and thus society's rules.

The only real fashion ruckus these women are creating is one based on individuality and independence. And that is a dust-up worth celebrating.

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