So it seems Michelle Obama, or FLOTUS, has been sartorially seamless. She arrived in India wearing a spot-on-trend silver floral Bibhu Mohapatra — an Orissa-raised fashion designer barely known in India but rather popular in American departmental stores. It was a perfect political nod at Indian success stories in the US. Bibhu, whose clothes FLOTUS often wears, is elated.
But she made bigger news for her whistlestop visit to Saudi Arabia. Why did she not wear a head scarf as is mandatory for the women in that country? Style watchers worked overtime to explain political protocol: foreigners were exempted from this rule, especially westerners, and Laura Bush didn’t wear one either.
Wives of heads of state are open to such style audit, I sometimes wonder if they warrant it. Why are our eyes watchfully trained on their clothes? Why are we constantly trying to look for a political significance or a cultural connect? If fashion is to be a political statement, why are the men exempt?
In today’s zeitgeist, one cannot but balk at the sexism the scrutiny of a first lady’s wardrobe entails. It almost makes her out to be a trophy wife. While Barack Obama toils about making heady speeches, signing important deals and treaties, his wife must only cut a pretty picture and a ribbon or two at a charitable school. In fact, the term ‘first lady’ does not only define the wife of a president, but it is also used for a woman on the top of her profession.
The first mention of ‘first lady’ was in a newspaper article in 1843, describing Martha Washington. “The first lady of the nation still preserved habits of early life. Indulging in no indolence, she left the pillow at dawn, and after breakfast, retired to her chamber for an hour for the study of the scriptures and devotion,” it noted.
When Hillary Clinton showed her collar bones in a television interview, her ‘cleavage’ was discussed more than it mattered. It didn’t matter that she was running for President at the time herself. Carla Bruni, as Mrs Sarkozy, was the muse and best model to the house of Dior. Even poor Hina Rabbani Khar, a Pakistani minister who visited India a few years ago, was toasted for her Hermes purses.
Then there is the absolutely garish celebrity angle: are the frocks freebies handed out by publicity-hungry designers? Of course they are. There is no clothing allowance for wives of politicians. Even the White House declines comment on who pays for Mrs Obama’s clothes. It does note that she does not accept gifts though. Her inaugural Jason Wu dress was donated to the Smithsonian museum after she was done with it.
Perhaps it is the absence of a public wife that keeps our gaze on Narendra Modi. Political corridors of New Delhi whisper that Modi’s Rs 10-lakh suit cost the BJP much in the local election. The prime minister of a country wearing a bespoke suit with his name embossed on it (as opposed to a wife wearing one) is fashion hara-kiri in pseudo-socialist India. Arvind Kejriwal’s muffler (yes it’s back in chilly Dilli) speaks volumes on his everyman status — free water, free electricity, freebies are loved by every man.
Maybe the real hero here is Smriti Irani, our HRD minister. Young and beautiful at 38, she hides behind piles of adipose, ill-draped saris and ugly FitFlops. She wants to be discussed only for her work in office. No, not even her college degrees.