More than just white dresses

Pictures of Michelle Obama and Carla Sarkozy Bruni walking side by side at the 65th anniversary of D-Day commemorations three weeks ago are remarkable.

They wear nearly identical knee-length white dresses with belts. Even to the trained eye, their outfits are very similar (Michelle’s by Narciso Rodrigues, Carla’s by Dior). Haven’t they committed the ultimate fashion sin?

In photographs the two women are talking animatedly and seem intimate, almost conspiratorial, and in the European press fashion has leaped out of the lifestyle pages and into the political section.

Never before have two white dresses been the topic of so much speculation and analysis. The most vivid message their choice of attire sends is that they are on the same side and support the political alliance between their husbands. But the symbolism doesn’t end there.

White is of course suitable for the anniversary of an event that helped to bring peace to Europe. White also creates a feeling of otherworldliness—these women are untouchable: not mere mortals who are subjected to the spills and disruptions of ordinary life. And white represents new beginnings.

But the conventional iconography of purity and chastity does not fit so easily. White is not a colour one would associate with Carla Bruni. Reincarnated as a rock chanteuse, ex-model Bruni once famously described herself as a “polygamous kitten”. On her latest album she sings of her 30 lovers (one of whom she says was like a drug to her, although she hastens to make clear it was not Sarkozy).

And Obama must appreciate the irony of the United States’s first black presidential family moving into the White House. White to her cannot be a neutral colour.

The D-Day event is regarded by some as round two of the fashion war between Bruni and Obama. The first took place during the recent Nato summit in Strasbourg (described as the “duel of Strasbourg” in the European press). On this occasion Obama’s choice of bright colours “won” over Carla’s subdued greys.

But—you may argue—who really cares what these women wear? Do we not have more serious things to read about? And perhaps a dress is just a dress is just a dress?

Judging from the response in European papers the answer seems to be no. After all, as we learned from The Devil Wears Prada, fashion is never just fashion.

It is a cultural barometer and a measure of the Zeitgeist. It is also profoundly economic and political. The Guardian described Michelle Obama’s support of small designers and her habit of wearing garments more than once (!) as her way of sharing the G20’s commitment to an end to unfettered capitalism.

The counterargument, of course, is that the profit-seeking aims of the fashion industry preserves the capitalist status quo.

It seems to me that the unprecedented interest in the first ladies’ clothes raises two further questions. One concerns the continued viability of the convention that presidential spouses must fill a particular role, and the expectations these women have to live up to.

Like the British monarchy, the first lady convention is hopelessly outdated. It does not fit the modern role of women and restricts and inhibits the contributions intelligent and resourceful women can make. And if we do away with this convention it does not matter whether South Africa has two, four, six or more first ladies.

The second message concerns the power (and perhaps limits) of self-transformation. Since marrying Sarkozy, Bruni has transformed herself into a modest and submissive yet decorative “lady”.

The word used most frequently to describe her new style is demure. Separated from her husband by 10cm and 13 years, the once rebellious Bruni now wears demure ballerina flats in consideration of her shorter husband.

And it seems as if the Harvard-educated Michelle Obama has transformed from a feisty, dynamic and outspoken woman to a woman who is just slightly too careful to offend and just slightly too concerned to represent the American Dream (who bakes cookies and looks at her husband adoringly á la Laura Bush). I thought we had come a long way, baby?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with caring about clothes. I have always resented a kind of I-am-too-busy-thinking-profound-thoughts-to-care-about-frivolous-things-like-clothes attitude especially prevalent in academia. But the latest press coverage of Obama gives the impression that she is not interested in anything but pleats and ribbons.

Could anyone imagine Hillary Clinton wanting to be defined by the colour of her clothes or her sunglasses (à la Jackie Kennedy)? Gloria Steinem’s statement that women are becoming the men they wanted to marry fits Clinton like a glove.

Increasingly, men also understand the language of fashion and self-representation. Barack Obama looks particularly sharp in his snappy dark suits. And Nicolas Sarkozy knows the power of clothes (right down to his stacked heels). Gordon Brown on the other hand always looks endearingly scruffy.

But no one expects these men to funnel their entire political message through their choice of clothes. Political column space is not dedicated to speculating about whether the pattern on Obama’s tie means he will close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre or bail out the bank. No one thinks paisley means peace, polka dots war.

The powerful wives of these leaders should have access to a fuller range of expression than that provided by their choice of frock.

Mia Swart is an associate professor of law at Wits University

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