The PJ Tatler

Do Michelle Obama's 'Girlie' Dresses on Asian Tour Send Message about Dowdy Hillary's Pantsuits?

AP Image

AP Image

First Lady Michelle Obama’s playful, cute, “girlie” outfits on her “Let Girls Learn” tour of Asia sparked the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman to reevaluate what she has always believed about empowering women through fashion.

The Obama dresses, for Friedman, conjure the 1950s, bringing the baggage of rigid roles and female subjugation, clashing with the first lady’s mission to promote education and career options for girls.

As a woman, and one who spends a lot of time thinking about the messages women’s clothes send about their identity, I found the apparent clothes/context disjunction to be jarring. Even for a first lady who is known for her affection for a print and a dress, even in countries where color and nature are celebrated.

Shouldn’t she have worn a sharp-shouldered suit to talk about achievement?

But, oddly enough, the fashion expert doesn’t admonish Michelle Obama to pay more attention to visual elements of her message. Instead, Friedman decides that her own long-held convictions must be wrong, and that the first lady is not only right, but she’s on the vanguard of a woman-buttressing fashion revolution.

How do you erase a stereotype? You confront it, and force others to confront their own preconceptions about it, and then you own it. And in doing so you denude it of its power.

In a word, Mrs. Obama has become the avatar of “Girlie Power.”

In the midst of her eureka moment, Friedman delivers a gentle backhand to women who dress the way Friedman always believed they should, before Michelle Obama put on her playful party dress.

We live in the era of the Merkelization of female political dress, which has seen women like Ms. Merkel, the German chancellor, and Hillary Rodham Clinton adopt what is effectively the male uniform in softer, brighter colors to remove the topic from the conversation. (It’s a pantsuit. It’s a beige/orange/teal pantsuit. Enough said.) Another way to explain the strategy is “bore them into talking about the issues.”

But that testosteronian costume now seems so…February 2015.

In choosing to meet young women in clothes that, perhaps, make her look like them — or how they may want to look if they didn’t have to wear school uniforms — Mrs. Obama was implying: You can dress like a girl and dream about getting a Ph.D. (or a law degree, if we are being picayune), too.

Meanwhile, that frumpy drudge, Hillary Clinton, waddles about swaddled in her Maoist conformity to old feminist man-aping tropes.

I would suggest that you picture Hillary in a bright and winsome party skirt, festooned with newly-empowering 1950s patterns, but as you know, what has been seen cannot be unseen.