Today’s election is the most image-driven in our nation’s history, if not the world’s. Pictures from every campaign rally, public appearance, and doughnut-dispersal have been tweeted, blogged, and examined for clues on what each candidate stands for. Meanwhile, both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have been out in full force to support their husbands’ campaigns, and their presence has been felt to a degree unprecedented by previous first ladies and those who hope to become one.
Few, if any, Americans will vote based on what Ann or Michelle wears. However, both women’s public images are vastly important to their husbands’ campaigns. Both of them have made dozens of appearances on behalf of their husbands; Ann has been particularly visible in the last 30 days, working persistently to reverse Mitt’s lagging appeal to female voters.
Newsweek’s Robin Givhan wrote yesterday that the media’s parsing of Michelle’s wardrobe has become tiresome. And indeed it has — as Givhan points out, not every brooch and J.Crew dress that Michelle trots out is pregnant with meaning. The first lady has bigger fish to fry than sending cryptic messages through her choice in skirt color. But it would be wrong to suggest that her sartorial choices are insignificant, and the same applies to Ann. Both women and their respective camps know the importance of public image, and how they choose to dress is in clear alignment with what they seek to project.
As Ann and Michelle have barreled through the final 30 days of the campaign, they’ve each avoided taking chances with their outfits, sticking close to what they (and the public) know. This surely has almost as much to do with their nonstop travel schedules as it does with keeping their campaign messages consistent. Both have repeated designers and garments. Both must be exhausted and don’t have time to quibble over what to wear.
For her own part, Ann has stayed loyal to her two favorite designers, Alfred Fiandaca and Oscar de la Renta — both of whom have dressed female political figures on either side of the aisle — and has bundled up in a red Patagonia jacket in colder climates. She has continued to dress more conservatively than Michelle, opting to cover up her arms at all times. She’s also erred on the more informal side, sometimes just wearing black pants and a button-down-and-blazer combination. This choice is perhaps a combination of her personal preferences — she’s never been a fashion plate and defines herself as a stay-at-home mom — and the need to portray Mitt’s identity as frugal and humble despite his tremendous wealth.
Meanwhile, Michelle has continued to champion the many American designers who, along with much of the fashion world, support her husband. While she hasn’t made any flashy choices — this isn’t the time to make headlines with her outfits — she’s stuck with industry darlings like Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, and L’Wren Scott, mixing in perennial favorites like Michael Kors and Rachel Roy. As Givhan states in her aforementioned piece, Michelle’s sartorial choices can “convey significant messages about economics, female power, and the potency of the creative spirit,” but alternatively, sometimes they’re just pretty dresses and nothing more. Of course this is true. But her image as a modern woman is an immeasurably important factor in her husband’s campaign, and her fashion choices remain an integral part of that picture.
Both Ann and Michelle represent leaders who hope to be great examples — ideals, even — for Americans, female and male. Click through our slideshow to see how they’ve packaged themselves, clothes-wise, in their respective public appearances over the past 30 days. After today, we’ll be seeing a lot less of one of them.