Star-spangled wardrobes

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It always feels a bit odd to be an American overseas as July 4 nears; strange jingoistic impulses rear their heads and sudden desires to fry chicken and eat corn on the cob seem overwhelming. It’s one of those hokey US holidays that non-natives often find difficult to understand and easy to dismiss: all that flag waving and self-celebration, at a time when the country is fast skiddo-ing down a slippery slope to non-global domination; how deluded are you?

This is typically when I decide I really, really do need that red-white-and-blue Chanel shorts suit and cardi after all, or the white silk star-spangled YSL dress, or at least the Topshop “homage” versions of the same. Forget flying the colours: I want to wear them. In your face, buddy!

Barack Obama didn’t go nearly far enough with that little flag lapel pin he sported when it became clear he would get the Democratic nomination. I mean, after the Chanel show last March, designer Karl Lagerfeld had explained his Betsy Ross-inspired collection by stating it was time to give the US some obvious support. If a German designer of a French house feels that way, shouldn’t the actual Yankees? Sometimes the sartorial message doesn’t need to be so subtle.

And actually, when it comes to US presidential candidates, it usually isn’t. There was nothing difficult to get about George W. Bush’s cowboy boots, or Bill Clinton’s baseball caps, and there’s nothing obscure about the rolled-up shirtsleeves Obama used to favour, when he was being accessible as opposed to presidential. What’s interesting about it all, however, is the way the men use their wives to help them cover the electoral landscape. As they reach out to the big, working-guy population, dressing as though they can hunt and fish like any other man (for real, not just congressional, game) their other halves reach out to what seems, in most cases, a somewhat different niche.

Think of Cindy McCain, with her neatly coiffed platinum blonde locks, princess-line coats and pastel suits, and Michelle Obama with her ceiling-busting uniform of wide black belts, primary-coloured sleeveless shifts and gobstopper pearls. Both are clearly aligning themselves with various traditions – the former, the Nancy Reagan-esque, supportively-seen-but-only-appropriately-heard-spouse; the latter, the Jackie Kennedy-type, asset-beside-the-throne – while also providing an updating of sorts: sensitivity on the one hand, and muscles on the other.

Hey, their clothes say, vote for my husband because 1) he’s a hero and I don’t see anything wrong with being a modern prom queen; or 2) we’re at a moment of generational change and we – the new ones – have got the power. Both statements are pretty loud. And they are not, either literally or metaphorically, casual. So while it’s possible that come next week we’ll be inundated with shots of Mrs McCain and Mrs Obama decked out in Levi’s and C&C California T-shirts serving lemonade and fruit salad (yes, it’s a cliché, but elections love a cliché), somehow I doubt it. First Ladies are supposed to look like role models, not average Janes.

Significantly, this is not true of prime ministerial spouses. What do Sarah Brown’s nice un-showy pencil skirts, low heels, and plain jackets shriek but: this political scene is not about me! The difference is partly systemic – the voting for the party, not the person – and partly cultural: the English aversion to being seen to care too much about appearance, or spend too much money on it. You certainly aren’t supposed to be caught spinning with it.

Which may explain the puzzlement about the July 4 celebrations over here – but then, wardrobes are all about spin. Even a statement that says “I don’t care about my clothes” is a statement. When Mrs Brown wears Jaeger she is saying, “I support local industry”; when Gordon Brown branched out from his Exchequer uniform of blue suit/white shirt/red tie, his ambitions branched out too. It’s just no one talked about it, whereas in the US, people can’t stop. Hence the role model thing. If how you look is going to be the subject of conversation, you might as well determine the topic. It’s a variation of a piece of advice the general counsel of a big insurance company once gave me: executives should always talk to the press. It’s the only chance you ever have of controlling the story. In these Big Brother days, clothes are no different.

Consider, for example, the statement Michelle Obama gave last February, one that has been her nemesis ever since: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” It doesn’t matter how many times she explains it, the other side keeps using it to question her loyalty. Now, it seems to me, she could do a lot worse as a riposte than to appear next week in a very tasteful flag-like shift, wearing her patriotism on her sleeve.

Hell, we might even be twins.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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