Fashion Understatement

When it comes to political wives these days, style doesn't always speak louder than words.

Election 2004: The Wives

July 13, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

When Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry posed for a political family portrait last week, their wives, the potential first and second ladies, stood out for blending in.

Elizabeth Edwards wore a plain gray pantsuit and minimal makeup. Teresa Heinz Kerry, her hair humidity-frizzed, sported a blazer with linen pants.

The images that appeared on front pages across the country the following days were sleepily all-American. The "Casual Corner" Edwards and the "Ann Taylor" Heinz Kerry were dressed like your cubicle-mate at work, your next door neighbor, or this week's carpool mom.

O where, O where has Jackie O gone?

"Times have changed," said Dany Levy, editor-in-chief of, an e-mail bulletin of style and trends. "There was a time when Americans very much liked having a first lady that they could look up to and aspire to, in a Jackie O sort of way. The spotlight has shifted, I think. First ladies have become more figures of respect. I think it is a move to appeal to every woman, and not make the first lady be sort of an intimidating figure."

No matter the president, vice president or political hopeful, over the years the American public has been drawn to what his wife wears. During a depression, a cold war or a time of heightened terror alerts, the fashion sense of a political wife still means something. It says something about her. It says something about him.

Observers have already had their chance to size up Teresa Heinz Kerry. The outspoken millionaire tends to look the part, albeit in an understated way. She's been spotted in Chanel and cocooned in a pashmina. Still, much of her wardrobe leans more toward the simpler Ralph Lauren, king of high-end American fashion.

Kerry's naming of John Edwards as his running mate brought another wife into the public eye, Elizabeth. From her first photo-op, hand-in-hand with her husband, the style-conscious started in with the scrutinizing - and comparing her, looks-wise, to her handsome husband.

She's plump, with a kind smile, older than he is. Her plain-Jane jackets are a bit too snug. Like many American moms, she's even flirted with - and admittedly failed at - the South Beach Diet.

But in news accounts of both women, personal style has taken a back seat to other aspects of their lives - their family backgrounds, for example, their wealth, their motherhood, their professional accomplishments.

Elizabeth Edwards was herself once a practicing attorney and is a dedicated mom. Philanthropist Teresa Heinz Kerry is, among other things, famous for being heir to the $500 million Heinz Co. fortune.

In this day and age, those things mean more to Americans than what they pull out of the walk-in closet every morning, experts said.

"I've followed all of the candidates and the candidates' wives since January," said Myra Gutin, historian and author of The President's Partner: The First Lady in the 20th Century. "And truthfully there hasn't been that much attention on fashion."

Possibly because there isn't much of it to speak of.

Unlike the ultra-chic Jacqueline Kennedy, who lived in Oleg Cassini, waved to the American public in Chanel and ran errands in Valentino, today's political wives seem stuck in dress-down Friday.

They may be, some observers said, purposefully trying to avoid stealing their husbands' thunder - or worse, embarrassing them.

"I think the wives of political candidates, like doctors, observe the maxim `First do no harm,'" said Lewis L. Gould, a retired professor from the University of Texas who has edited biographies of first ladies. "If there's a certain amount of modest dowdiness, it's because it's really politically dangerous if you do much else."

Over-the-top fashions or a really awful sense of style can give political opponents and the scrutinizing public too much fodder for fault-finding, Gould said.

"Today's first lady has to deal with an increased public awareness of style and fashion," said image consultant Dianne M. Daniels, noting that no one - especially the wife of a political figure - wants to end up the subject of harsh media criticism for fashion faux pas. "Conservative seems to be the rule."

Presidential hopeful Howard Dean's wife, Judith Steinberg, sparked many water cooler conversations during her five minutes of fame for adamantly refusing to buckle to the pressures of being a candidate's other half - whether the pressure related to her anti-fashion, or her successful medical practice.

Steinberg's work-in-the-yard clothes, limp hair and no make-up made a definite statement: I'm a doctor, not a political appendage.

"Almost all of these women are women who have achieved something on their own," Gutin said. "I think that the expectation might be to have the achievements speak for themselves."

Today's wives of the political powerful are often themselves working women. Coiffed hair and haute couture don't fit into their lives any more than such luxuries would in any one of ours.

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