The 'Obama look'

One week after her husband’s assassination Jackie Kennedy gave an interview to Life in which she described his presidency as “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot ... there’ll be great presidents again, but there’ll never be another Camelot”. Ever since, Camelot has, in American parlance, been a reference to the Kennedy era.

Robin Givhan, fashion editor of the Washington Post, last month described Michelle Obama’s look as “Camelot with a tan”.
Much has been made of Michelle’s close mirroring of the most iconic of first ladies: the pearls, the shift dresses, the flipped-out bob, the preppy shots of colour, are all direct lifts from the early 1960s Kennedy wardrobe.

But last week, as she took to the stage with her husband in Minnesota after the final night of primaries, Michelle Obama drew striking parallels with another American fashion icon. She wore a simple purple shift dress, accessorised with a bold string of pearls and cinched with a wide black belt—an almost identical outfit to one worn by the character Carrie Bradshaw in a key scene in the film version of Sex and the City, currently on release.

It seems likely that with the Carrie­alike outfit—unlike the Kennedy tributes—the similarity is accidental, an unconscious channelling of the style zeitgeist by Michelle Obama or an assistant. But it is nonetheless significant. At the heart of the Obama image is a combination of deliberate, studied classicism and youthful modernity. When Barack Obama addresses an audience the elegant rhythms of his speech are brought up to date by his habit of dropping in quotes from his young daughters. He began his Super Tuesday speech (“We are the ones we have been waiting for”) by telling the crowd that he had asked his daughters to come on stage but that the elder had dismissed him with, “Daddy, you know that’s not my thing.” It is the same story with their clothes: Michelle Obama might be referencing Jackie Kennedy, but with the Sex and the City accents she looks far more modern than Cindy McCain, who resembles an outdated waxwork of a first lady.

Barack Obama’s own wardrobe has been striking in its simplicity. His trademark is a slim-fitting black suit, and a sense of spit and polish; a very starched white shirt, a very shiny dark shoe. The dark tailoring gives him gravitas, and—in photos at least—adds presence to his slim figure. (Those who have seen him in person often comment on how surprisingly thin he is.) But this austere look is not short of admirers. Lucy Yeomans, editor of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, describes him as “lean and stylish—he definitely has something of the matinée idol about him”. Charlie Porter, associate editor of GQ, describes it as “a potent combination to have a relatively young man who seems to be bursting with energy, and to be doing so in a suit. Obama has managed quite a heady mix of turning himself into this inspirational figure to the young, while doing so in clothing that is totally sober.”

The choice of black suits when all around him are dressed in Capitol Hill standard-issue dark blue sends a subtle signal. It lends his image a quality more redolent of black-and-white photographs than of TV—strengthening that Kennedy-era association again—while also looking fashionable and idealistic rather than staidly businesslike. It enables him to simultaneously hark back to American politics’ golden era and to look forward to the future.

Although not skinny enough to satisfy the fashion purists—Jeremy Langmead, editor of Esquire, admits to wishing someone would cinch those trouser legs in a bit—Obama’s suits nod to the slim silhouette currently fashionable in menswear. “He is one of the few public figures to grasp the new mood in American tailoring prompted first by Thom Browne and now Tom Ford—the sort of slick and optimistic tailoring that is seen in (TV’s) Mad Men,” says Porter.

Clothes are troublesome for male politicians, who have to tread a very fine line between looking like they care too much and looking like they care too little. “Politicians have to pay attention to their clothes,” says Langmead. “Obama manages to look fashionable without looking fashiony.”

Guy Trebay, writing in the New York Times, reports that “Obama has managed to score hits with wardrobe choices—jackets nonchalantly slung over a shoulder, short sleeves in his heartland, neatly tailored suits on television—that somehow telegraph personal comfort without sacrificing authority.”

But it is through Michelle’s wardrobe rather than Barack’s that the Obamas can send the strongest sartorial messages. In the same way in which certain details of their relationship have been made deliberately and politically public—they saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on their first date, for instance—Michelle’s campaign wardrobe has been formulated, as Givhan put it in the Washington Post, “specifically to help the viewer imagine her in the role of first lady”. As Yeomans observes, “Michelle makes constant references to Jackie O, but it’s done in a unfussy contemporary way, ensuring she effortlessly projects the image of a modern president’s wife.”—

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