Is It Weird That Politicians' Wives Are Wearing Dresses Instead of Suits?

Or is it just the Mad Men effect? Two Atlantic editors investigate.

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Two Atlantic editors discuss this election cycle's trend of the presidential candidates' wives abandoning office wear for cocktail attire:

Heather: When did politicians' wives stop wearing suits? This wasn't something that was really on my radar until the final presidential debate. I think I vaguely registered just how much talk there was at the conventions about Ann Romney's "Reagan red" and Michelle Obama's jacquard (or something).

But what really struck me was going through all these photos after the third debate: photo upon photo of two immaculately coiffed women with a certain length of hair dressed in the exact same silhouette of dress, grinning broadly as they hugged their husbands. It looked like we'd suddenly been transported to the '50s, possibly early '60s—Jackie Kennedy wouldn't have looked out of place.

Garance: I know. I can't tell if it's the fact that Mad Men coincided with the Obama years or if it's thanks to some other influence, like Michelle Obama's stylist.

Of the two I suspect Mad Men had the greater impact—more of a mass impact.

And then of course there was doubtless a conscious effort to evoke the Camelot of yore...

Heather: Certainly the vintage fit-and-flare look has come back in, and I can see why it's a cut that Michelle Obama favors. But the influx of dresses is still remarkable when you consider how much suits dominated in the past few elections.

The Camelot point is an interesting one. Certainly there's been a bit of that. But at the same time, the Kennedy era saw a lot of cropped jackets as well.

So you could go the cropped jacket route if the Jackie look is what you're going for.

We've seen less of that—more just a LOT of dresses.

Garance: Mrs. O wears a ton of them.

Heather: I do wonder if this is a conscious attempt to feminize Michelle Obama.

i.e. it's okay for Barbara Bush and Cindy McCain to wear suits because they aren't seen as particularly threatening to traditional values, but Michelle was deemed to have needed some softening around the edges.

I think back to the early political discomfort with her in the wife role.

Garance: I'm sure some of it was individual preference also.

A desire to do things differently.

Heather: I wonder, too: Do we know for sure if Ann Romney and Michelle Obama are coordinating? First the suits in the first debate, then the hot pink in the second debate, then two A-line-skirt dresses in the third.

Garance: I suspect it was more a question of weather/location plus topic areas plus current trends.

But the interesting thing from my perspective is how far everyone has gotten away from the power suit, not just Mrs. O.—political wives, politicians and newswomen on TV.

Heather: True enough.

Garance: Ann Romney used to wear suits last cycle. And now she is dressing more like Mrs. O. I recall noticing the switch when it first happened.

Heather: The reason this development interests me is that, in a way, it makes a lot of sense: Despite the intense focus on political wives, they are in fact civilians in the campaigns. In some ways it would be nice if political spouses didn't have to pretend they were interviewing for the same job as the person actually running.

Garance: True.

Heather: On the other hand, given that they are in the spotlight, and Michelle Obama's and Ann Romney's speeches were such big deals at the conventions, maybe it would be nicer if it were their words and not their frocks everyone was talking about? And maybe suits would facilitate that? I don't know.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta & Heather Horn

Garance Franke-Ruta is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Politics channel. Heather Horn is an associate editor.

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