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

By Garance Franke-Ruta & Heather Horn

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.

It's not that I think this is really an issue to get particularly worked up about, but insofar as clothes are signals, projecting identity, it's an interesting trend.

Garance: On the other hand, the whole position of first lady is kind of bizarre. I mean, she has a staff, and an office, and her staff gets paid. But she's a PT to FT volunteer, paid via her husband's salary.

Heather: True that. One thing that might be nice about a female president is that it might kill the whole First Spouse thing for good.

Garance: But I doubt it!

Heather: Why should a spouse have to have such an official position?

And this is actually something that's come up recently. See, for example, Carla Bruni's bizarre interview telling Francois Hollande he should marry his partner.

Didn't she say something about how she thought she felt more comfortable as a partner to a politician once actually married to him, with a formal sort of position to step into? That struck me, particularly as I hadn't thought France was all that focused on "first families."

Anyhow, Obama is the first Democrat to hold the presidency after the Clinton "two for the price of one," and notably Michelle's speech leaned very hard on the "mom-in-chief" theme. The [garment] medium certainly matched the message.

Garance: Indeed. And Ann Romney would be more of the same.

If not more so.

Heather: Are there any strong structural reasons (aside from the move to DC) why a presidential spouse couldn't keep his or her own career, barring any conflict-of-interest issues? Or is it purely political?

Garance: It seems to be purely political.

Garance: Also, many of them gave up independent careers long before arriving in Washington.

I think second ladies have a bit more independence.

Garance: And of course there are cronyism and conflict of interest issues.

Heather: The question about political spouses—wives in particular—who give up careers long before heading to Washington: how does that fit in with recent research about how that plays into their husbands' perceptions? I'm thinking in particular about that study this spring that said men with stay-at-home wives were more likely to be sexist in the workplace.

I don't want to get super alarmist about this, but is this something we should be worrying about with the way political marriages are often structured?

Garance: And there are studies about politicians with daughters being more progressive on women's issues, as well.

Heather: I bring it up because I'm trying to get at why I had such a visceral reaction to all these 3rd-debate photos of two women in 50s-style party/housewife dresses greeting their besuited menfolk as they came off the battlefield. I'm usually reluctant to discuss what female public figures are wearing—it's an area fraught with double standards. But visually, this event felt like it was hearkening back to another era—a world away from the last election where Clinton and Palin were the ones hauling their husbands onstage.

I'm also less certain as years pass that clothes are just clothes, and don't mean anything. The mid-century optics this election are striking, in part because there are some distinctly mid-century debates still in play in our society.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/10/is-it-weird-that-politicians-wives-are-wearing-dresses-instead-of-suits/264287/