Trish Crawford, Toronto Star, November 21, 2008, LIFE; Pg. L01
Every time Michelle Obama wears one of her unusual dress selections on television, the item flies off the shelves.
The famous $148 sundress she wore on The View and the J.Crew yellow suit she wore on Letterman were huge hits with shoppers, while the red dress she wore on her first visit to the White House proclaimed, says Bonnie Fuller in the Huffington Post, “I’m ready to be Page 1.”
Experts say it is she, not her president-elect husband, who will be setting fashion and cultural trends when the couple reaches the White House.
She nixed getting a designer pooch, saying her kids would adopt a rescue dog, and will continue this thrifty, socially conscious pattern throughout the term, predicts marketing guru Alan Middleton, of York University’s Schulich School of Business.
“She’s saying, ‘You don’t get much more down-to-earth that I am,'” says Middleton. He predicts there will be “a number of symbols that say, I am one of you.”
The American-made family car, a Ford Escape hybrid, is a perfect example of this, he points out, as it is both patriotic and environmentally responsible.
“It’s smart and good value,” Middleton says, “and I can see that in everything she does.
“This is the Hollywood side of politics. It’s that old star quality.”
Widespread interest, even adoration, doesn’t necessarily result in copycat behaviour, says political scientist Renan Levine, of the University of Toronto.
Jimmy Carter tried to get Americans to wear sweaters during the energy crisis of the ’70s and, even though he happily sported a cardigan, the style never really took off, Levine says.
On the other hand, he says, Ronald Reagan’s love affair with the colour brown was widely adopted in men’s clothing.
When fashions were adopted, such as Jackie Kennedy’s clothes and J.F.K’s refusal to wear a hat, they were widespread throughout the U.S., regardless of politics, Levine says.
“It has a bipartisan effect. The cultural impact is broad-based.”
He agrees it is Michelle Obama who is setting the style.
“No one has looked like her before. She is establishing a new palette.”
Alice Chu, an expert in fashion and colour at Ryerson University, notes the array of brightly coloured dresses provides a feminine silhouette.
“Her clothes say she is an individual, she’s intelligent and not fooling around.”
Her wardrobe differs greatly from the “very European and Anglo Saxon” outfits worn by Cindy McCain and Laura Bush, Chu says.
Michelle Obama is “showing a different side of the global, ethnic community.”
Chu, a member of the international team that yearly picks the fashion colours that will be popular, says the clear red dress Michelle Obama
wore to the White House after the election was an excellent colour for her.
Other good colours, Chu says, include black, white and purple, which she obviously has a fondness for, having worn it many times in public.
That “regal iris” evokes the royal purple of monarchy and is associated with strength and power, Chu says. Wearing black also evokes a “black is beautiful” undercurrent, she says.
Barack Obama’s preference for white shirts and dark suits sends a message that he’s “honest and straightforward.”
She expects white dress shirts to get a popular surge. Historian Gil Troy, of McGill University, agrees, saying everything about the new First Family will be scrutinized and copied by an adoring public.
“We’ve seen this thing before, with the Kennedys,” says the author of Mr. and Mrs. President, from the Trumans to the Clintons. “But the frenzy this time is going to be that much more intense.”
The press, which shares a “vibe” with the intellectual, urban Obama, is giving him a bit of a free ride right now, says Troy, feeding the public’s appetite for information about his favourite snacks (Planter’s Trail Mix), preferred drink (Black Forest Berry Honest Tea) and favourite book (Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls).
“This product placement is a boon for consumer manufacturers of all kinds.”
The Obamas, Troy says, are clever at making decisions, such as what car to buy, and “turning it into political points.” Saying this couple “is very coached,” he points out Michelle Obama has replaced early complaints about her “stinky, snoring husband” with the traditional supporting role. “Michelle didn’t play well. She was being passive aggressive,” Troy says of the early days of the campaign.
The couple has to give off an air of authenticity, Troy says. Any signs “that it is too faux, too calculating and on the make will cause a backlash.”
Their White House style will fit in with the new era of austerity, predicts Troy, but will still have sparkle and energy.
As he puts it, “They give great celebrity.”
Copyright 2008 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.