The Depth and Intricacies of a First Lady’s Wardrobe

In the midst of an election, the press focuses on speeches, events, political policies, and overall charisma. However, throughout history, the fashion choices of a prospective First Lady is analyzed to an almost extreme extent. This absolutely carries over and is heightened after a candidate is elected: a First Lady is the ultimate representation of the ideal American woman. Every piece of fabric that touches her body is an indication of values, of priorities, of the nation as a whole. The way in which a First Lady dresses can be read through the rhetoric of politics and fashion, and is undeniably going to resurface as the race for President heats up.

When Barack Obama was first campaigning, there was a large focus on Michelle Obama’s stylistic choices rather than her academic background. She pointed out the inequality in the way we culturally scrutinize a First Lady’s wardrobe, while completely disregarding that of a male President. At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, former FLOTUS stated “No matter what we do he puts on the same tux. Now, people take pictures of the shoes I wear, the bracelets, the necklace—they didn’t comment on that for eight years, he wore the same tux, same shoes.” This focus reinforces the aesthetic value of women rather than their individual value, adding layers of judgment to each outfit they choose to wear.

Moreover, Kanye West's announcement that he may run for President shook the entire nation, and social media users pointed out the possibility of having Kim Kardashian West as First Lady as soon as the Tweet was posted. Immediately, the aesthetic value and fashion choices of a prospective First Lady were analyzed and scrutinized, even without confirmation of West’s bid.

It’s also interesting to consider whether the same focus on fashion would be placed on a female President and her husband or partner if elected to office. The closest reference point we have to this possibility was Hillary Clinton. Though the focus on her fashion choices in her campaign was less prevalent in comparison to her time as First Lady, scrutiny over her pantsuits, accessories and shoes was still everywhere. It may be difficult to consider what a First Gentleman’s role would look like and how he would be analyzed as a public figure, but layers of gender roles within the political arena would likely keep the focus on female fashion choices more than his own. Clinton addressed the fixation on the fashion choices of women in her 2016 campaign, where she responded to a question about her shoes by asking “Do you think anybody talked to Bernie Sanders about his shoes?"

Our focus on the fashion choices of First Ladies throughout history is indicative of what these women represent in America. They are a metaphor for traditional femininity, and are still, to some extent, required to present themselves in a specific manner to give the nation their ideal. One of the most important roles of a First Lady is to maintain their image in the face of mass scrutiny from the press, supporting the underlying idea that they are an accessory to be analyzed rather than a dynamic and capable individual.
Alysha Mohamed