Criticism befitting a first lady

Style tips for first lady Style: Her husband hasn't even been inaugurated yet, but Laura Bush is already a fair target for fashion experts, as were her predecessors.

January 19, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Never mind speculating whether George W. Bush will flub his lines during tomorrow's swearing-in ceremony or wondering if the Texas two-step indeed will dominate the dance floor at the various galas.

One of the key questions among many Americans regarding the inaugural festivities has been: "What will Laura Bush wear?"

The answer - probably to the relief of many - is a peacock-blue boucle skirted suit with espresso-hued stitching for the swearing-in and an elegant red silk long-sleeved gown with a delicate scoop neck and Swarovski crystal beading for the inaugural ball.

With Bush on the cusp of taking over as the nation's social hostess, the issues of her outfit choices and (lack of) dress sense suddenly have become important among the fashion elite. Bush, publicly content in her role as wife, mother and former teacher and librarian, has never feigned any desire to come even close to the cutting edge of fashion. But that hasn't warded off the increasingly catty criticism of her clothes and an outcry for her to spruce up - pronto.

Fashion observers feel her suits are too conservative, suffer a severe dearth of chicness and come in such all-too un-photogenic color combinations as algae green and gray. And then there was the unflattering purple plaid suit she donned last month for a White House tea with Hillary Clinton, who - unfortunately for Bush - looked tres sleek in a spiffy, figure-slimming black pantsuit.

"Oy vey! Has she ever heard of Donna Karan or Calvin Klein?" celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch said of Bush. Bloch's clients include Halle Berry and Cindy Crawford. "That purple plaid was just begging to be crucified. I'm not saying she has to be in Prada but ... when you're a first lady, you're a role model. She hasn't been horrible by any means, but she's the president's wife and now she's going to be representing us around the world? She's our global figure of style?"

Even her hairstyle has come under fire.

"I was just looking at her on TV the other day and thinking, `If I got a hold of her, I would definitely bring her up to the year 2001,' " said Shannon Frost, a Los Angeles-based Cloutier Agency hairstylist who does Suzanne Somers and Jaclyn Smith. "I think she's an attractive woman, but her hairstyle is a little too long, it pulls her face down and it's too dark."

It is easy to attribute such barbs against Bush to these visually driven times, when public personas regularly have their images plastered all over television screens, Web sites and the covers of magazines. But Edith Mayo, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution's "First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image" exhibit, said scrutinizing the presidential spouse's attire is an age-old tradition that dates back to Martha Washington.

"People have always been interested in how the First Lady dresses," said Mayo, who noted that the Smithsonian has had a "First Ladies" exhibit since 1914. "Throughout history, the First Lady has been that part of the administration that sets the social tone in the White House and has a great deal to do with projecting images of authority, dignity and commanding respect.

"This was especially important in the 19th century, when the United States was trying to prove itself as an equal of the European powers and the White House was a stage, a setting for the president to conduct politics," Mayo added. "And the First Lady is the one who creates that setting and enhances that style."

Mayo said the general public historically has wanted the First Lady to "represent the best of American womanhood" and be elegant and stylish without looking too fashionable or regal.

"They don't want her to be overly lavish or be a clothes horse because that does not smack of democracy - it smacks of royalty," Mayo said.

Sharyn Wizda, the Austin American-Statesman's fashion writer who has charted Bush's style for years, said the new First Lady's fashion leanings have always been conservative. Wizda said Bush prefers wearing skirted suits without blouses because they're convenient and she doesn't like fussing over her clothes. Bush has used Texas designer Michael Faircloth since she entered the limelight as the governor's wife in 1994, and Wizda speculated that this arrangement will not change. In fact, Bush commissioned Faircloth to design her inaugural outfits.

"She's not going to be like Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be trying on a bunch of different roles," Wizda said. "She's happy with the look that she has."

But other fashionistas have suggested that Bush consider other sources for clothes.

"The resources for her are amazing," said Ricci Di Martino, a Cloutier Agency stylist who has created looks for Lisa Kudrow and Lara Flynn Boyle. "There are so many American designers she could wear. There's no reason as a first lady that she shouldn't look put together and the most fabulous woman in the country."

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