Does it matter what our leaders wear? A new book argues that the influence of female public figures is intimately linked to their sense of styleby Hugo Rifkind / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
At a state dinner for the Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington this January, Michelle Obama opted for a red number by the late British designer Alexander McQueen. Flowing, satin, off one shoulder and hugging the other, it caused quite a fuss. “My understanding is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade,” said Oscar de la Renta, the Dominican-American designer, afterwards. “Why do you wear European clothes?”
The debate over Michelle’s alleged disloyalty to her nation was covered by almost every major paper in the English-speaking world, from the Washington Post to the Guardian to the Times of India. The Council of Fashion Designers of America, headed by Diane von Furstenberg, reiterated the criticism. Joan Rivers popped up in the Huffington Post calling it “Wrong. Wrong.” There followed various American stylists saying that, actually, the real problem was she was just too old for the thing; others asserting that she looked great and was terribly brave for showing her arms; and Michelle Obama herself having to defend her choice on a TV chatshow. “Look, women,” she said. “Wear what you love. That’s all I can say. That’s my motto.” This is a woman with an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Wrong wrong? Michelle Obama in her controversial Alexander McQueen dress
But as it happens, Harvard Business School might well have a bit to say about the connection between appearance and power, particularly for women. As the New York Times Style Magazine put it earlier this year: “Sarah Palin’s infamous $150,000 shopping spree during the last presidential elections underscored the fact that, in politics, a woman’s wardrobe can all too easily eclipse her ideology. Whether she’s working a trailer park-friendly plaid shirt at a campaign stop or an ethereal Dior gown at a state dinner, there is no escaping sartorial scrutiny.”
This point is central to a new book by journalist and consultant Robb Young, Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion (Merrell). “In political circles the word ‘fashion’ is still often pronounced as if it’s an expletive—‘fashion,’ that superficial business for indulgent, politically apathetic people,” he writes. This is a mistake, according to Young. If you look good, it helps. Often, a lot.
The argument is hardly surprising or new. But the book—and the wider discussion around it—makes useful mischief out of the contradictions in US…