Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fashion Matters

So, recently I posted the following photo on Facebook. Supposedly it is meant to illustrate the differences in values of the two women, based on the cost of their outfits.

Understandably, a friend's response was, "WTF difference does it make what they were wearing?" And the answer, of course, should be that it shouldn't matter. And I've been thinking about it ever since. What is the obsession with first ladies' (or potential first ladies) styles, and what difference (if any) does it make?

My brief search on First Lady Fashion (FLF from here on out...) reveals a long history of following what they were wearing. Indeed, society columns 'then and now' made a point of describing in detail the clothing of the ladies of the time at various high society events. Yes,the ladies. Men's fashion really doesn't change that much, although these days men on the red carpet at the Academy Awards do get asked, "Who are you wearing tonight?" Still, it remains true that it's what the ladies are wearing that we really pay attention to.

FLF has a place in history...specifically, the National Museum of American History. But why does it matter? From the NMAH site: "Clothing, especially on mannequins, can give a sense of a person’s physical presence. It helps make even the most distant historical figure feel closer. Clothing and accessories illustrate the personal style of a first lady or the official style of a presidential administration. And they can represent the events to which they were worn—from inaugural balls, state dinners, and public appearances to everyday life in the White House." And political conventions.

Right. And you and I both know that a lot of thought goes into the outfits in FLF, for the very reason that the individual wearing the outfit is representing so much. Which brings me back to the above photo and whether or not it really matters what they were wearing. I say yes. And even though I had a difficult time articulating why it matters at the time the photo was circulating, I knew then and I know now, it matters. Because I know that each individual had a strong say in what they wore, who designed it, what colors would be involved, and what statement they wanted to make. In each case, the image presented is a combined result of personal taste and desired reaction.

Whether we like it or not, fashion matters. Fashion represents cultural and fiscal values. "Fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt." (Elsa Schiaparelli) And in politics, like it or not, FLF matters.

To listen to the story that re-sparked my interest in this topic, click here.


  1. Lori, that was very thoughtful. I have to say, it sets my teeth on edge when Secretary Clinton is judged for her clothing choices before the content of her speech is analyzed. Although I recognize the opinion that "clothes make the woman" because they can be considered to represent a visible expression of personality and emotion, I am frustrated that attention to such trivial matters (and they are trivial) feed into a culture of celebrity-worship and ADHD news cycles. Frankly, I don't care if Secretary Clinton wears pantsuits or skirts. I want to know what she is SAYING.

  2. Oh, I agree. It's not right. I have noticed some of the appearance criticisms with men, too (Christie comes to mind), but undoubtedly it is unfair.

  3. It is true that fashion trends are often based on the broader political, social and economic events of the time they're created. The 1920s was a prosperous, peaceful time in America and as such, dresses were made for dancing! Women's fashion was playful, glamourous and provocative. In the 40s and 80s when there was a resurgence/trend of women's roles in the workforce, shoulder pads became de rigueur (to mimic a man's broad shoulders). It's just like art history. Once we're all long gone and generations after us are watching videos, looking at photographs, reading textbooks and going to museums...what important historical figures wore do matter and do help inform the bigger picture.

    Fashion is often trivialized - who cares, they're just clothes! But whether you like it or not, your clothes speak for you before you get a chance to. Michelle chose to wear a young, African American woman designer who appeals to younger, fashion forward women. Tracy Reese does a lot of vibrant colorful prints, cocktail dresses and separates - not a lot of formal wear. She wore J.Crew shoes. Her dress was sleeveless and her hemline was short (in comparison to Ann's). She's projecting a very specific image here!

    In contrast, Ann was wearing Oscar de la Renta - he's a legend....he's been a staple of American fashion for years and years. He's known for classic shapes, classic colors and prints and a certain modesty. His dresses are gorgeous and Ann did look lovely.... but yeah, Oscar is much more expensive than Tracy Reese. Her dress was also red (she's a patriot!) with a longer hemline and longer sleeves.

    Michelle was appealing to the younger, more progressive/liberal (and I don't mean that just politically. Just less conservative in general). Ann was obviously appealing to an older, more traditional generation. Duh!

    So, yeah, the contents of their speeches matter more than what they're wearing. But what their wearing does matter.

    Was that long enough? Oops.

  4. Awesome, I knew you'd come through for me! (P.S., did you listen to the Tell Me More episode?)

  5. I pay more attention to provenance than fashion statement. Where they got their duds, what they paid for them, and who got work? The first lady kept her fashion dollars at home, and she gave work to a minority-owned, woman-owned business. God and the devil are both in the details.