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December 21, 2014
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Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Image source The Official White House Photostream via Flickr.com.

On April 22, 2012, French citizens will elect a new president, and at the same time, a new First Lady. Nicolas Sarkozy, defending champion, and his supermodel-cum-singer-cum-First-Lady wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, have undergone a conjugal "make-under" in hopes of appearing less "bling" and more "blah" to secure their place at the Élysée Palace once again. Bruni-Sarkozy, as reported in UK's The Daily Mail, has become unrecognisable, trading her Christian Dior skirt suits for swathes of chunky knits, leggings, incognito wigs and Uggs, drawing attention to the somewhat illusory dichotomy of fashion and politics in the dress code of a First Lady.

Both Sarkozy and his wife have been chastised in the past for their public image and very public romance, often turning the spotlight away from politics, rendering the French presidency a facsimile of the American cult of celebrity. American author, Diane Johnson, told TIME magazine, "this would be like Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy," around the time their liaison made headlines back in 2007.

Bruni-Sarkozy on the cover of TV Magazine. 

Source: JPQuino via flickr.com.

This time around, the Sarkozy-Bruni pas de deux is relying on a strategic rebranding of both campaign and clothing for the win. The most recent campaign amendment came in the form of a pledge to balance the national budget. But on the clothing front, Sarkozy's physical appearance shows no visible alterations. Taking Bruni-Sarkozy's look down a few notches, however, occurred almost overnight when the Italian heiress, once love interest of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Donald Trump, graced the cover of French television listing magazine, TV, wearing a frumpy grey sweater and little make-up, straddling a television set circa 1962. Lauren Daniels reported shortly afterwards on Time.com that Bruni-Sarkozy "wants the world to believe she's also a reality TV-watching, ordinary housewife."

Housewife and First Lady aren't usually synonymous, despite the many women who have embodied both titles throughout history. Bruni-Sarkozy's sudden championing of the ordinary housewife archetype raises questions surrounding the role of the First Lady. Should the First Lady's role encompass a fixed set of traits or can this role be tweaked and manipulated at will to convey an underlying political agenda?

Laura Bush, teacher, librarian and former First Lady of America, said in a TV interview with PBS' Margaret Warner that aired on October 25, 2004, "I think the American public really wants the First Lady to do whatever she wants to do. I think they, you know, if women are activists, I think they think that's great. If women stay home and support their husbands, I think they think that's fine."

Often, when Nicolas says, 'I will announce this, what do you think?', I am unable to give an opinion. I pity him. He ended up with the most apolitical animal of all.

On Bruni-Sarkozy's website, the term First Lady is defined not as an empty receptacle, but a real office with tangible civic duties and responsibilities. "The term First Lady denotes a role. There are no official documents to spell out exactly what that role entails, but it is a very real role. The First Lady plays an official role representing France. She accompanies the Head of State on a number of trips abroad and takes part in official events."

But a line cannot be drawn at charity events coordinator, travel companion and stay-at-home mother. In many nations and throughout the years, the First Lady or Queen, is often regarded as the unofficial advisor to her reigning spouse - and sometimes, like in the case of former wife of the President of Iraq, Sajida Talfah Hussein whose name came in at number seventeen on Iraq's most wanted list in 2006, an official partner in crime. Former American First Lady Rosalynn Carter, quoted in an article published in British online journal, The Independent, in 2008, believes pillow talk between First Lady and Head of State can indeed have a significant influence on political decisions: "They talk with them all the time, they have the President's ear. I don't think there is any doubt about it."

In the case of catwalk veteran Bruni-Sarkozy, she is undoubtedly more seen than heard. "Often, when Nicolas says, 'I will announce this, what do you think?', I am unable to give an opinion. I pity him. He ended up with the most apolitical animal of all," she recently told French political magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur. Instead, Bruni communicates her opinions through what she wears. It's hardly a surprise that she should aptly define each role, housewife and First Lady, with a separate wardrobe.

Bruni-Sarkozy and Chantal Biya, First Lady of
Cameroon, with a Hermès Kelly Bag.
Source: parismatch.com.

On the one hand, Bruni-Sarkozy's chameleon routine reeks of a society obsessed with appearances, subscribing to the well-known caveat of judging a book by its cover. A housewife, or First Lady for that matter, is only as convincing as she is dressed for the part. On the other hand, her fashion diligence attests to a widespread phenomenon empowering First Ladies worldwide - whether they feel compelled to participate in it or not.

In his elucidating book, Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion, fashion journalist, Robb Young, surveys the alarming degree to which fashion and politics are intertwined. His is an in-depth analysis that includes notable First Ladies and how their clothing has often embodied social, cultural and political messages under the guise of trifling adornment.

According to Young, the antiquated Jackie O approach to First Lady dress-up evinces a "Barbie-doll" prototype, which many women have either exaggerated, rebelled against or redefined according to their specific cultural climates. He stresses, "why they decide to conform or how they choose to rebel can explain as much about the societies they represent as it does about the women themselves." Young proffers an example in Zahra Rahnavard, wife of former President of Iran, as a harbinger of social reform with her patently liberal, or even rebellious, donning of the traditional chador.

As hyperbolic versions of the soignée First Lady, Imelda Marcos, Grace Mugabe and Chantal Biya, are scrutinised for their penchant for all things haute couture, diamonds and excessive shopping sprees; a stark contrast to their respective nations' economic perils - their lavish lifestyles on which many political pundits put the blame. Is it possible for a First Lady to dress fashionably without her country conveniently attributing the national debt to her Birkin bag collection?

...since the press has focused on the act of Bruni-Sarkozy's make-under rather than the personality traits and values that her new look suggests, there is little evidence that the French voters will be so easily fooled either.

Enter, Michelle Obama. The wife of American President, Barack Obama, has incited a new breed of First Lady, one that is extolled, or conversely bemoaned (depending on who's counting), to the likeness of a Hollywood celebrity. A First Lady with a personal wardrobe like any other woman keenly interested in fashion: a mix of high and low brands conceived by Obama's stylist, Ikram Goldman, supplemented by her own personal items from J.Crew. Obama, according to Robb Young, "overturned fashion's power symbols and escaped looking confident, cool and inventive in the process."

Obama isn't alone in her lasting First Lady iconoclasm, nor is she undefeated. Just as photographs of stars are cropped back-to-back on the pages of Hello Magazine for a "Who Wore It Better" reader poll, media outlets constantly pit First Ladies against one another in a fight for style supremacy.

At a recent State Dinner, Samantha Cameron, First Lady of Britain, and Obama, were photographed side-by-side, both wearing their respective country's homegrown designer creations in matching blue hues, fueling The Daily Beast's Isabel Wilkinson to pen an article comparing each woman's authority as an unofficial fashion ambassador. Cameron supporters should note the First Lady's previous day job as the Creative Director of luxury stationery brand, Smythson, which she quit in May 2010, according to an article in Vogue UK, in order to balance her life as an expecting mother and wife of Britain's Prime Minister.

However, Obama has a few tricks up her graphic patterned sleeves in lieu of a fashion industry pedigree like that of other First Ladies, such as Bruni-Sarkozy and Cameron. Instead, Obama has made her mark in the fashion industry by regularly strategically selecting relatively unknown designers and putting them on the map by wearing their creations to high-profile events. Harper’s Bazaar's Joyann King claims it was the American First Lady who galvanised the Jason Wu frenzy by wearing his one-shoulder white gown to the Inaugural Ball in 2009; the magazine has also called her the "First Lady of Fashion."

Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama with
President Cameron and President Obama,
State Dinner 2012. Source: timenewsfeed.com.

Cameron and Obama aren't the only First Ladies quickly pitted against one another by magazines, blogs and newspapers over so much as an argyle sweater. As the presidential race in France culminates into a duel between Sarkozy and socialist adversary, François Hollande, dubbed "Mr. Normal," their wives are increasingly depicted neck and neck. Turkish newsource, The Hürriyet Daily News, posts "First Lady Competition in France," listing biographical points from each woman's CV as though she were for hire.

A similar post surfaced months earlier in UK's The Telegraph entitled "French presidential election: the battle to be first lady," which marks a public coffee encounter between the two ladies as occasion to embark on a fervent comparison of their involvement in their husbands' campaigns.

It was a recent throw-away post, however, by French lifestyle site, Plurielles.fr, which ran a photograph of Bruni-Sarkozy in a beige trench coat cut-and-pasted beside another photograph of Hollande’s girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, wearing a very similar design, which resonates most with the current climate surrounding the so-called political fashion Olympics. The post read, "even though the press has a tendency to oppose the two... when it comes to fashion, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Valérie Trierweiler are in unison."

Allying France's First Lady hopefuls by their proclivity for trenchcoats is not as superficial as it may appear. The Bruni-Sarkozy "make-under" could have in fact been an attempt to liken her to a just-better-enough version of "Mrs. Normal," Trierweiler - a physically attractive political journalist who sticks to capsule dressing. If Bruni-Sarkozy can win over France with an accessible, working-mum style, it's hard to see why this couldn't potentially translate to a Sarkozy advantage at the polls. After all, is Trierweiler really a worthy fashion opponent in the face of someone like Michelle Obama?

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Valérie Trierweiler
in matching beige trenchcoats.
Source: Plurielles.fr.

It takes more than a few oversized sweaters, no makeup and a trenchcoat to convince an entire nation to be your friend, however. Some experts like Christina Logothetis, image-consultant and creator of the blog The Style of Politics, comments on the current obsession with Bruni-Sarkozy's shotgun make-under: "This change for Carla Bruni is a rather similar reaction to negative comments in the press about her image as the changes Hillary Clinton made as first lady... Ultimately the story is not about how 'down to earth' she is, but rather the make-under itself becomes the story, as it has [in the Time Newsfeed article]. A subtler but more extensive change in her wardrobe might have had a more lasting effect."

A slower change over time might have been more convincing, but it is questionable as to whether the public would have detected it in time to secure Sarkozy's re-election. Similarly, since the press has focused on the act of Bruni-Sarkozy's make-under rather than the personality traits and values that her new look suggests, there is little evidence that the French voters will be so easily fooled either. As we move into the last few days of the first-round elections, the debate remains wide open. If Sarkozy is indeed re-elected, all eyes will undoubtedly be on France's First Lady and what she wears on the eve she reclaims her (fashion) crown.  

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