THE NEW POWER DRESSING: Michelle Obama shows the ladies how…

Gallery of Michelle’s style after the jump!

“I can remember every one of the outfits Michelle Obama has been photographed in since Barack hit the campaign trail. In the same period I could tell you that Hillary Clinton wore a lot of trouser suits, but I couldn’t describe any of them. I have a picture in my head of Cindy McCain in a primrose yellow skirt suit with matching shiny shoes, but only because that one stood out as pure astronaut’s wife as opposed to Peyton Place. Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s image is branded on our frontal lobes, but that’s all about the sexy specs and the high crown hair and nothing to do with her standard-issue woman-in-politics separates.

I could draw you Obama’s top 10 campaign show stoppers, plus accessories. The purple shift with the black belt (Azzedine Alaïa) and the gobstopper pearls. The jade green three-quarter-sleeve sheath with the striking starry brooch in which she addressed the Democratic National Convention. The floral shirtwaister dress and silver pumps. The black-and-white leaf-print shift. Everyone remembers the clothes for two reasons: she looks good, and she looks like Michelle Obama (the badass wife who is sort of keeping it real), as opposed to the identikit politician’s wife or a power-dressing fashion plate. For once a woman in a position of power has not felt compelled to follow a formula, and is power dressing as herself.

It helps that Obama is not the standard Wasp with social x-ray proportions (even if she’d wanted to stick to the script, she would look like a sofa in one of those wannabe Chanel suits). It also helps that she is 44 and a working mother of two young girls, not a consort who is defined by her husband’s role. Way before anyone had heard of Barack, she had a lifestyle that demanded practical clothes that flattered her and gave her poise and authority. A real working woman’s wardrobe. Hey presto, we have a role model for women in positions of power who have no desire to look like either the camp boardroom bitch (4in Louboutin heels, hourglass Roland Mouret dress) or some throwback to the I Love Lucy era. Obama wears clothes that you could wear to a school parents’ day or a smart party; a day on the hustings or a family barbecue. This woman — a normal woman with a normal figure and a (relatively) normal working life — has kicked power dressing into the 21st century.

Let’s just pause for a moment to reflect on the workwear options for the average high-profile woman. At one end of the spectrum you have the muddy-trouser-suit brigade, the category favoured by British female politicians — Tessa Jowell and the like. Somewhere in the middle are the suits with personality (they’re the ones who add a scarf, a natty pair of shoes or a daring hemline — see Kirsty Wark). Then there are the uniform dressers who favour one-colour skirt suits, with matching accessories. Their mentor is Condi Rice, who has perfected the art of uniform civilian dressing, and a new recruit is poor Sarah Brown, who has been forced to abandon cardigans on the grounds that they look too indecisive. And right at the other end of the scale are the sexy secretaries in pencil skirts, wide belts and heels, who model themselves on Posh Spice.

In a way, power dressing has become a kind of parody of itself that ignores current fashion and has no relevance to the way we live. Look at Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who, as soon as she became the wife of the French president, adopted a retro-conservative, princess look that in no way reflects the life she leads, let alone the woman she is. In fact, it took those early images of rebranded Bruni — in coy pillbox hat, flat pumps and below- the-knee grey wool coat — to drive home just how theatrical and divorced from reality power dressing has become. Mme Sarkozy looks like she’s playing the part for a photo shoot, not living it.

Bruni could have kick-started a new vogue in power dressing; instead that task has fallen to Obama and another woman who has found herself centre stage by virtue of her husband’s job — the wife of the leader of the opposition, Samantha Cameron. Sam Cam is coming from a similar place to Obama. She has a job, kids, she’s her own person and she’s young (37) — plus the whole Cameron style is more informal, more barefoot-in-the-kitchen-on- a-Saturday-night, than any of their predecessors of either party. Cameron lives in boho west London, Obama in Chicago, and the way these women dress reflects their more relaxed approach to all the trappings of status.

These women don’t want to power-dress old style, because the power they are part of looks and feels entirely different. It’s about white wine rather than champagne; solar-powered showers instead of marble bathrooms; bicycles rather than limos; denim, not gold buttons on bouclé. For the men, it’s washing the dishes and baby papooses; suits without ties and loafers without socks. For the women, it’s BlackBerrys and breast pumps; home-dried hair and high-street shopping. Finally, power dressing is falling into line with the way new power likes to operate — out of the kitchen, in rolled-up shirtsleeves.

Not much that Cameron wears sets her apart from other working women of her age — including the money she spends. Like Obama, she appreciates that good style — especially if it’s for the cameras — is two parts simplicity and one part accessories, and it doesn’t have to cost designer prices. (The black-and-white dress that Obama wore on a television show with Barbara Walters cost £85 and then promptly sold out everywhere. Most of Cameron’s wardrobe is picked up in French Connection and Topshop. Meanwhile it’s estimated that the outfit Cindy McCain wore to address the Republican convention — diamond earrings, pearls and Chanel watch included — will have cost in the region of $200,000). Both like to strike the right fashion note, especially Cameron (she’s done the 7 / 8th trousers with cape, Obama wears cut-off leggings) and both — just like us — spend the extra on fashion- forward accessories. For these women luxury is not an updo and a couture suit, it’s dressing like their peers in the real world. As Cameron says of her husband David’s views on her clothes: “He’s very much like, be who you are.”

If you aren’t convinced that a big change is under way, you only have to look at the picture of Obama walking alongside Jill Biden, wife of the Democratic vice- presidential running mate, to see what a gulf has opened up between the old style and the new. In her neat, cream, Chanel-wannabe suit, matching cream highlights and nude heels, Biden looked like a hostess from Air Force One, while Obama (dressed down in shirtwaister, bare legs and flat pumps) looked like a woman ready to do business. Strange how things sometimes turn out.


* Be smart, without being flashy or ostentatious. The epitome of old-style power dressing is Ivana Trump — all hair, cleavage and money. Real power dressing plays down all of the above.

* Look chic, but never stiff or elitist. Anna Wintour has impeccable power-dressing credentials, but in a deluxe, label-conscious way — the new power dressing is less formal, less high-maintenance and barely bothers with designer labels.

* Keep it stylish, but don’t let your fashion agenda dominate. Rachida Dati, the French justice minister, takes a good photograph, but her flashbulb-friendly brand of glamour is a distraction that tends to end up being the story. Real power dressing is about standing out from the crowd, but always in a manner that regular women can relate and aspire to. Sarah Brown, for example, does not qualify as a role model because she still looks way too ordinary (and as though she’s been forced into it at gunpoint).

* Real power dressing is about being smart and true to yourself, and the balance between the two is what makes it new. Work out what suits you, and don’t deviate.

* Keep the lines simple, then add accessories. With jewellery, keep it bold and simple, not fussy — see Obama’s signature oversize pearls. Update the look with belts and shoes and bags.

* Don’t get trapped in standard black, navy and red. Prints and strong colours look fresher and less conservative.

* Avoid fussy details like bows, and too much flesh on show.”

Cindy McCain is sitting somewhere burning those $40,000 Oscar De La Renta suits.


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