From Michelle Obama to Samantha Cameron and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a new generation of wives is setting the tone for their respective spouses' administrations with cool, casual glamour, says Kate Betts.
When Michelle Obama glided on to the landing of the White House's north portico two weeks ago in a stunning red organza dress by Alexander McQueen, she started a fierce debate in the United States about her choice of a British label over an American one. Oscar de la Renta - a kind of Seventh Avenue elder statesman - deemed it inappropriate.
"My understanding is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade - American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why [would] you wear European clothes?" he asked Women's Wear Daily , the American trade newspaper. The Council of Fashion Designers of America, New York fashion's governing body, said it, too, was "a little disappointed" by the First Lady's choice.
Of course, the First Lady can wear whatever she likes, and Michelle Obama has been a terrific ambassador for a new generation of American designers, showcasing designs by virtual unknowns, such as Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo, for all-important occasions, such as her husband's inaugural ceremony. But the controversy over her red McQueen dress reminded us, once again, of the power of style when it comes to leading ladies around the world - particularly the first wives, those women who live in the political spotlight without policy responsibilities.
From Michelle Obama to Samantha Cameron and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a new generation of wives is setting the tone for their respective spouses' administrations with cool, casual glamour. Although some leading ladies are unwavering in their support of their own country's talent - Bruni-Sarkozy favours French labels such as Dior and Hermès - they are savvy enough to know it would be bad form in lean times to take after Marie Antoinette. Hence, Obama's signature J Crew cardigans, Bruni-Sarkozy's demure flats, and Cameron's Marks & Spencer dresses . They all project a similar politically-correct image: not too flashy, not too dowdy.
"We want our first lady to be well-dressed… but they can't wear clothes that are too expensive," says Catherine Allgor, the author of A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation . "We want these people to be like us, but better, because we want to feel like they're the right people for this job."
In the United States, this has been true since the earliest days of the Founding Fathers, when style played a crucial, if symbolic, role in politics. Martha Washington dressed in homespun clothing to differentiate herself from royalty. Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, used her personal style to convey a mix of democratic warmth and royal opulence. She wore turbans with feathers in them and devised inclusive events at the White House, such as the Easter Egg roll and the Inaugural Ball.
But it can be a delicate balance and, on occasion, the dressing down can go too far. Rosalynn Carter, President Jimmy Carter's wife, was lacerated in the press for recycling her pale blue inaugural gown during a recession. In her memoir, First Lady From Plains , Rosalynn wrote: "Image became a nuisance that wouldn't go away. I thought that if I were working productively and accomplishing something worthwhile, the image would take care of itself."
It is a sentiment that Cherie Blair, who set a decidedly anti-fashion tone after the 1997 election when she appeared in a nightgown on her doorstep to collect a bouquet of flowers, probably identified with.
Michelle Obama, on the other hand, has tapped right into the power of visual communication in the global culture. Her wardrobe is a canny calculation of high and low fashion. During the campaign, she outwitted the free-spending vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin by showing up on The Jay Leno Show in a $340 J Crew outfit. Once in the White House, she hosted a lunch attended by Nancy Reagan wearing a $40 floral Gap cardigan. And she is often photographed walking the family dog in jeans and Converse sneakers. Similarly, Samantha Cameron - who made Vanity Fair 's best-dressed list last year - favours Uniqlo jeans and Zara blazers. She, too, made a statement with accessible fashion from the start, showing up at the Conservative Party Annual Conference in October 2009 in a polka-dot dress from Marks & Spencer.
The next generation of leading ladies is already taking note. Kate Middleton appears to be dressing in an economically sensible fashion, maintaining her casual, practical style despite her soon-to-be-royal status. While nobody seems to care that the dress she chose for her engagement announcement was not designed by a Brit but by the Brazilian-born designer Daniella Issa Helayel, her preference for high-street brands has not gone unnoticed.
Miss Middleton has been spotted hunting for bargains at the discount store TK Maxx, and rifling through the sale racks at every Chelsea girl's favourite department store, Peter Jones. She even plumped for the high-street for her official engagement photos, wearing a £159 Reiss dress and a £95 silk blouse from Whistles. Like Obama, Middleton is careful to mix high fashion with affordable looks that project an accessible, everyday style: wrap dresses, skinny jeans, hunting boots, and bomber jackets.
And while Oscar de la Renta might be upset about the much-discussed State Dinner dress, the First Lady didn't show much remorse. Instead, in an appearance on Good Morning America several days after the dinner, she repeated her fashion mantra to the hostess: "Wear what you love!" she said, "That's all I can say. That's my motto."
'Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style' by Kate Betts is out February 8 (Clarkson Potter, £22.05)