A recent study by Jeetendr Sehdev, a branding expert and marketing professor at the University of Southern California, found that women across the United States and the United Kingdom consider Michelle Obama as a greater “Style Icon” than Kate Middleton. The study found that women perceived as having greater independence are also perceived, essentially, as more stylish. First Lady Michelle Obama, a Harvard Law School educated lawyer, was found to be 11 times more influential in fashion and style than the former party planner, Princess Catherine Cambridge. Another icon listed at Ms. Obama’s level in influence was millionaire singer/songwriter Taylor Swift, those at the Princess’s level included Snooki from Jersey Shore and Paris Hilton.
This does not mean Her Highness is on her way to being a Kardashian, stylewise, banished to Sears and Bebe. Both women pack a powerful economic boost for fashion. The Harvard Business Review, in 2010, found that Ms. Obama created $2.7 billion (USD) in value for 29 companies, simply by wearing their clothing. The Kate Effect, the immediate response of consumers to buy the clothes seen on Kate Middleton and thus generating in economic activity, has been estimated as high as £1 billion (GBP) or $1.6 billion (USD). Sehdev estimates its true value as $200 million (USD) based on his report’s ranking of Middleton’s influence.
The women share a similar style, often dressing in the same designers, like Jason Wu and Thakoon, and shop at similar High Street-esque brands such as J.Crew, Zara, Whistles, White House Black Market. Both women have rocked similar casual outfits – skinny jeans and flats, skinny jeans and boots, skinny jeans and sneakers.
The difference: Obama’s style is slightly more colorful, she wears a greater palette of colors from jewel tones to neons and is more daring/baring; she’s gone strapless, sleeveless and off the shoulder. With those arms, hell yeah! Middleton, often pictured at royal engagements, appears to favor a more limited palette and more conservative style. Some of this may be event driven, Middleton is often with her Grandmother-in-law, The Queen, and/or weather related. Middleton is also one of the few common born British to marry into the Monarchy – her great-grandmother-in-law, Queen (Mother) Elizabeth was the first since the Tudors. These factors and more (maybe she has knobby knees and arms that can’t compete with the First Lady’s) demand a decorous and careful public fashion sense, that, with its lack of individuality and self-expression, reduces her from icon to . . . Snooki. Even solely in the UK, she is not the most stylish woman. (Shoot me if Snooki ever becomes the most stylish woman in the US).
Don’t Cry for Me, Anglesey!
As part of their similar styles, both women are highly successful in mashing High Street with Couture, making them accessible in a populist way that few First Ladies or Royals have been. Kate Middleton wears Zara and Diane Von Furstenberg dresses, Top Shop tops and RayBans along with high end favorites like Temperley, McQueen and a host of Haute Couture designers, usually British or of the Commonwealth. Michelle Obama’s closet, which she stocks with her own money, ranges from Target to Jason Wu, Thakoon and Narcisco Rodriquez. While Middleton tries to dress within the Commonwealth, Obama gravitates towards American and minority designers.
Style as Self-Expression
From Madeline Albright and her pins, Mary Robinson and her pearls, Elizabeth II and that bag, to Cleopatra and her eyeliner, women with power have been closely related to style and fashion. Much more so than men, who seem to be tied to food (e.g. Henry VIII, William Howard Taft, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton to a fast food lifestyle originally and now almost vegan diet.)
Per Sehdev, the reason that Kate Middleton was not crowned a style icon could be attributed to the fact that, while she presented a timelessness to her style while still looking current, she did not possess the independence, confidence and daring of Michelle Obama. Kate is, essentially a better dressed version of Hillary Clinton, First Lady. Clinton had not yet found her pantsuit wearing, don’t-make-me-take-off-my-glasses sense of style that she now evokes while she was serving as first lady in her husband’s White House.
By these standards, Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis, who reigned during the White House’s Camelot administration and stands as one of America’s most polished first ladies, would not reach the level of style icon. Kennedy referred to her style as State Dressing, a reflection of not her own identity but a proper representation of class, ideology and ethos. Her public wardrobe was mainly couture designers.
Currently, the Design Exchange Toronto is running the exhibit, Politics of Fashion| Fashion of Politics. Those who used fashion, as art, to communicate identity and politics as well are shown and revered for their independence and sense of presentation. The exhibition includes the usual suspects of designers like Betsy Johnson, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, as well as designers like Hussein Chalayan, who had models solely dressed in various lengths of chadors walk down the runway. The lengths varied from covering just the model’s eyes, leaving her mostly nude, to a model fully swathed in a chador, with only her toes viewable. According to Chalayan, the show was meant to examine clothing and the loss of self.
Politics of Fashion|Fashion of Politics also examines those whose style reach iconic status, such as Canada’s Former First Lady, Margaret Trudeau, who captured the style of her country and was one of the first women to wear a shorter dress to a formal White House dinner. Without taking a stance on Middleton/Obama, the curators do recognize Obama as a style icon.
When Barrack Obama became president, Michelle Obama quickly gained recognition as a style icon. She is best known for . . . pairing high-end designs with more democratic designs from J.Crew and Target. The results is a first lady who is both fashionable and in touch with the American people. It is an embodiment of an accessible and modern style that has been described as “fashion populist.”
A recently opened exhibit in London, Women Fashion Power, looks at how Britain’s most stylish women, from Princesses – Diana, not Kate – to CEOs, have used fashion as a tool to declare independence, and establish themselves. Several exhibits are running in New York which also look fashion as art and identity, like Brooklyn Museum’s John Paul Gaultier exhibit.