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The Semiotics Of Convention Fashion

Interpreting Michelle Obama's frock, the ubiquitous navy suit, and other key components of 'the visuals.'

Political conventions are a four-day triumph of form over content. While the candidates' sartorial choices might seem trivial at a moment of war and economic insecurity, the masterminds behind such political events place a very fine point on the stagecraft--what one CNN commentator called "the visuals." For every public event, but for this whale of one in particular, as much thought and effort is spent on a speaker's clothing (and the image it will project) as on his or her speech. Remember: Al Gore once paid money for Naomi Wolf to advise him into "earth tones."

And so, early afternoon, long before the speeches were to begin, an email from Woman’s Wear Daily with the subject line "Michelle Obama’s Wardrobe" appeared in my inbox. Katie McCormick Lelyveld, communications director for Michelle Obama, had informed the magazine that her boss would be "remaining loyal to her favorite hometown designer, Maria Pinto." Michelle had worn Pinto several times during the primary campaign: the memorable purple frock of Barack’s declaration, the one the fashion press cooed over because it was accessorized with a chic Azzedine Alaia belt, the dress that said this is not your parents’ political spouse--that was a Pinto design. Should Michelle become First Lady, it seems likely that this unknown would become First Designer, the Oleg Cassini (Jackie Kennedy) or James Galanos (Nancy Reagan) of the Obama administration. The Pinto of the convention speech would be, in inimitable fashionspeak, "turquoise blue, three-quarter-sleeve sheath-like, fitted, Fifties-inspired style in double-faced wool.” However, the magazine helpfully reminded, “like any woman, Obama could change her mind at the last minute."

Michelle proved she is no flip-flopper. She donned the proposed turquoise sheath, the elegantly scooped neck of which was adorned with a brooch: a flower, perhaps, or a sunburst, or starfish. This slightly old-fashioned detail, as well as the length of the dress, nodded to an earlier, more innocent time. But the color seemed a unique and distinctly modern draw from the small box of bright Crayolas from which the candidates' wives--and of course female candidates themselves--are forced to select. Jill Biden had chosen a suit in "aquamarine"; Hillary Clinton, on evidence earlier in the day as she spoke to her New York delegates, a pantsuit in "canary." (Hillary, as we all known by now, owns the 64-count box of pantsuits.)

It seems that only women several degrees removed from the presidential race can get away without wearing color. Nancy Pelosi, in a white suit with a Nehru jacket, resembled an elegant and icy soap opera star, the Erica Kane of Congress. Caroline Kennedy was understated in dark navy sheath. The dress, though simple and innocuous, was also, in the vein of Kennedy's speaking style, not exactly telegenic. Its bejeweled collar--a stab at pizzazz, with ersatz rubies and citrines--puzzled. Sometimes it glinted wildly, as though it were battery-powered, like those flashing pins people wear on holidays. Other times, it just looked big and flat and dull and strange, as though Kennedy had clipped a barrette to her lapel. Of course, her clothes were sort of beside the point. She's a Kennedy. She has a Neil Diamond song named after her. She doesn’t need any extrinsic glamour.

Like his niece, Ted Kennedy, who delivered the most moving (at moments heartbreaking, given the circumstances) speech of the evening, was dressed in navy blue. If, as Diana Vreeland once quipped, "pink is the navy blue of India," then navy blue is the navy blue of politics. All the prominent politicians of the evening--Joe Biden, Jim Leach, John Kerry, Kennedy--wore navy blue jackets, white or blue shirts, and white-and-blue patterned ties. Their ensembles were so similar one began to suspect they had, like a clique of junior-high girls, called each other the night before to coordinate outfits. (Kerry's take, however, was rather more patrician: cornflower blue tie; matte where others' fabrics were meretriciously shiny.) The reasons for all the blue are obvious. It's patriotic, and it’s also the party's color. Perhaps more relevantly, navy seems safe and stalwart in this aforementioned time of war and economic insecurity: the color is free from the suspicious slickness of black, and the dowdy, Beta-male connotations of brown. A real man throws on a navy blue sport coat when he cleans up and goes out. Navy blue is a color that will--to quote another commentator from CNN's very deep bench, who was himself quoting Groucho Marx --"play well in Peoria."

The question of the proverbial Peoria and its hypothetical taste hovers over the entire convention, but last night, it lingered after Michelle Obama's speech in particular. How will she and her classy turquoise sheath be received? As someone who spent a chunk of her childhood in several small towns very near the real Peoria, and whose relatives still live not far away, I can attest it is a valid and complicated question. Her womanly seriousness (that is, her welcome lack of non-threatening girlishness), her heavyweight professional credentials, her statuesque beauty and understated good taste: these are not necessarily valued by the mainstream. It's difficult to say whether she will play well in the heartland. The different sort of taste (and the harsh economic climate that often hones it) the Obamas might meet in the rest of the country seemed symbolized by the sartorial choice of one delegate from Georgia.* She was wearing a bright red cowboy hat that, upon close inspection, read "Stop America's Economy From Going Down the Drain." Perched atop its brim were various bathroom fixtures in miniature: sink, tub, and tiny toilet.

Amanda Fortini is a writer in Los Angeles.


*Correction: This article originally stated that this delegate was from Wisconsin.

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By Amanda Fortini