White House Fashion

Yesterday, Marketplace ran a fascinating report talking to author Kate Betts about how the White House is influencing fashion.

Ryssdal: [Y]ou call it “approachable” at one point in this book. And I’m going to quote a friend of yours, you got an exchange from her at one point. Mr. Obama had been seen in a sort of informal jacket or something, and this friend of yours wrote to you and said, “You know what, I don’t want my Presidents to be approachable.”

Betts: Well, that’s interesting because the President has such an historic place, obviously, in this country….

Ryssdal: Do you see that being reflected in fashion trends and in style trends?

Betts: Oh absolutely. His use of color, the way he wears such beautiful colors so easily. Designers for spring have completely embraced that idea and you see color all over the runways….

Ryssdal: There are those that will listen to this interview and hear that it’s about style and fashion and clothes and kind of dismiss it as not substantive.

Betts: For some reason in this country there is this notion that style and substance should occupy two separate planets, really. And I think that actually Barack Obama is proof — living proof — that you can be stylish and substantive and you don’t have to make excuses for one or the other.

Oh, silly me, I got that wrong — the entire interview was about Michelle Obama. I should have realized, given how much discussion of First Ladies revolves around their sartorial choices. Next time I’ll remember that articles about Presidents are about what they’re doing and articles about First Ladies are about what they’re wearing.

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28 Comments

  1. on February 9, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    “articles about Presidents are about what they’re doing”

    Oh, I don’t know. If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the chatter about her would still revolve around her clothes and hairstyle, whereas the articles about her spouse would be about his diplomatic missions to North Korea and whatnot.

  2. on February 9, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Wait, are you saying there’s some kind of, I dunno, gender bias at work here? That sounds like crazy talk!

  3. Jim
    on February 9, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    To be fair, she doesn’t have a job. She’s fitting the gender mold of her own volition. What else are they going to talk about?

  4. on February 9, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    To be fair, it’s hard to find her doing things other than wearing clothes! Why, it took two minutes of Googling to find examples of non-clothesrelated activities.

  5. Jim
    on February 9, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    And by linking those examples, now you’re demonstrating the media talking about things other than her clothes 😛

  6. on February 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Even in those cases, though, you often get paragraphs devoted to what she wears. See the WaPo article for one such example.

  7. Jim
    on February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Of course. She dresses fashionably and cares about her clothes. And we live in a society that also cares about that. They talk about Barack playing basketball, and drinking beer, and being “cool.” We like to identify with celebrity.

    The article you originally linked to is simply an interview of a fashion writer to promote a fashion book. Hell, they even mentioned Michelle’s childhood obesity campaign, which I’d argue is less relevant in this context. They were already set to write an article about fashion. Would you rather them have talked about Paris Hilton or Michelle Obama?

  8. on February 9, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    That’s a nice false dichotomy, but I’m full up on those already.

    One article specifically about fashion is not in and of itself the problem. But the article did make me realize that most of what I hear about Michelle Obama involves how she dresses, which designers she patronizes, what colors she wears, etc. If we’re meant to identify with Michelle Obama, this indicates that we can only really identify her by talking about what she wears, and not what she does or says. If you flip who they’re talking about, the article sounds weird.

  9. Jim
    on February 9, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    A false dichotomy is not a fallacy unless a claim has been made. I was sincerely wondering if you’d complain more or less if they had been talking about someone you probably care less about.

  10. on February 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I’d complain less about an article about Paris Hilton not because I care less but because her fame is built around her fashion choices rather than her accomplishments. It’d be like complaining about people focusing on Heidi Klum’s clothing choices.

  11. Rachel
    on February 9, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this, Stephen. This is one of my pet peeves, as you can imagine.

  12. on February 9, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    You bet!

  13. on February 10, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Stephen, should the media be allowed to talk about what the First Lady is wearing?

  14. on February 10, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I have no power over the media, and people will talk about what they want to talk about. But I would be much happier if newspapers and blogs spent as much time talking about what she was doing as what she was wearing.

  15. on February 10, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I agree that I don’t really like it, but I’ve never been a fan of First Lady fashion. It’s “cool as interpreted by your mom” 🙂 It doesn’t interest me because it isn’t bleeding edge style.

    I know that there’s a wide swath of the population that DOES care about what she’s wearing. Right now, she’s the quintessence of power and grace. She’s the “get things done” lady. People want to know how they can emulate that, stylistically. People want to be like her, and these articles present a set of guidelines.

    I know that it can seem as though that’s all people say about the First Lady. I was listening to NPR yesterday, and heard a Morning Edition article about her success in getting Wal Mart to adopt a new nutrition charter. I heard them clearly state that she was taking things a step beyond other First Ladies, that she was more than just a regular woman. That’s anecdotal, but no more so than the blog post above.

    Let’s say we kill off the fashion articles. That’s still a gender bias. Now we’re NOT talking about fashion because she’s a woman. Is it wrong for readers to be interested in the fashion sense of the First Lady?

  16. on February 10, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    That’s a much longer pause twixt comments. Am I about to get owned with some stats?

  17. on February 10, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I’m working right now, so I only check back in here on short breaks between work sprints.

    At any rate: Why do your comments fit Michelle Obama but not Barack Obama? Why not extensive discussions of his fashion, and how we can emulate him by wearing his kind of suits? The only time I’ve seen articles on his fashion is when he’s wearing flip flops.

    I did a quick Google News search on “Michelle Obama” to see what the media is writing about on the year anniversary of her “Let’s Move!” initiative. The top headline: “Michelle Obama Wears $35 H&M Dress On The Today Show”. Three below that: what she recommends giving on Valentine’s day. Two below that: her wearing a $34.95 dress. Then there’s her not getting an invitation to the Royal Wedding. Down at the bottom: an article about how she’s not getting rid of her top style advisor “despite the recent fashion controversy”.

    The same search on “Barack Obama” turned up one article near the bottom: Michelle Obama saying that Barack doesn’t dye his hair.

    What’s wrong is that fashion is the default conversation about Michelle Obama. As I pointed out above, even in a WaPo article ostensibly about her accomplishments, they get to talk about what she wears. I’m a little surprised at this pushback: are you guys saying that the media shouldn’t focus more on her actions than on her clothes?

  18. on February 10, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I’d call that stats for the purposes of this debate.

    “…are you guys saying that the media shouldn’t focus more on her actions than on her clothes?”

    This is why I’m commenting. That’s a hell of a question!

    I think the media should focus on whatever is making them money, because that’s their jobs. So, yes. I think that, in giving people what they want, the media should talk more about her fashion than her actions. It’s a near-perfect system for delivering the content people want to read, and I think your disappointment rests with the American consumer.

    I don’t hold out hope that the news media is some sort of humanitarian organization or progressive institution. I don’t think they can do anything other than reflect an extreme version of common belief, like some sort of funhouse mirror. I don’t much trust them with fact in any capacity, since the framing demonstrates bias most of the time.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t voice your concerns. In fact, I wasn’t actually going to comment, but your debate with Jim sparked my interest. It’s predicated on a very interesting idea: the idea that there is something that we should or shouldn’t be talking about.

    All I can tell you is what I want to hear. I don’t really give a rip about her church outfits. I want to hear about Wal Mart’s new nutrition charter, and I find the article about fashion boooooorinnnngg (fog horn). I also like hearing Sarah Palin’s hilarious attacks on things like making school lunches healthier. Those are funny. It strikes me as wrong, however, to tell other consumers what they should be interested in.

    So, to unequivocally answer your question: yes. The media should do what they have always done– provide the entertainment requested of them. It’s a joke of a system, but I believe your mistake is appreciating it at face value.

  19. on February 10, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Saying “the media should focus on making money” is accepting the idea that reporting should not inform, should not challenge, should not dig — instead, it should merely give us what we want. The problem is that what we want is shaped to a large degree by what we’re presented. I believe very strongly that your mistake is adopting the mantle of easy cynicism and saying, “Well, that’s just how things are, and you should accept it” with a shrug and a wry grin.

  20. on February 10, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I feel that I’ve been done a disservice here by having my argument represented by phrases like “easy cynicism.” I promise I didn’t shrug. I find this problem fascinating, and I don’t take it lightly. I hope that you don’t find my points dismissive or defeatist, because I care deeply.

    I don’t think I was clear enough before. I don’t think the key to changing the media is trying to change the media directly. In this case, that could mean anything from boycotts to gender-based legislation (which is obviously something you would not suggest). I look at the media the way I look at a hammer. I don’t fault the hammer for hitting things, because that is its function. In a capitalist economy, the job of businesses is to make money. The media are businesses, and thereby I believe it is their solemn duty to support the interests of the shareholders.

    In this case, that means shaping the debate by creating a cultural framework of gender inequality.

    So, to offer a solution, the best way to change the behaviors of the media is to participate. What you’ve done in the above article is absolutely correct. You’ve held NPR to account because you believe their portrayal of Michelle Obama’s fashion sense is contributing to the problem of sexism (I don’t want to offer a straw man. Is my assumption correct?). I feel like you haven’t gone far enough, though.

    We need to hold each other accountable for our views as well. Statements like, “Oh, so we should all read articles about the First Lady’s love of cocktails and her droll parties?” are definitely in order because they inform other people that they’re being fed a load of crap. The media are profiting from selling us a false picture of reality (you and I hope) and an incorrect assumption about females. By satirizing the people who buy into the framework created by our news overlords, you damage the media’s ability to shill toothpaste.

    I would argue that, instead of cynicism, I’m presenting a picture of hope. The media act in predictable ways, and like any system that can be predicted, we can compensate accordingly. Changing their ways begins at the interpersonal level, which means we all have the power to stop them.

  21. on February 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I was reacting to two of your statements:

    I don’t think [the media] can do anything other than reflect an extreme version of common belief…

    The media should do what they have always done– provide the entertainment requested of them. It’s a joke of a system, but I believe your mistake is appreciating it at face value.

    I took that to mean that the media should do what they do without change, and in fact cannot be changed unless common belief changes. That I strongly disagree with, both because the media informs common belief based on what it presents and because I believe the media can change. My reading of those statements was a defeatist one — we can’t really change the media.

    In a pure laissez-faire view of capitalism, corporations strive to maximize profits above all else. I don’t believe that’s a good or healthy approach for society as a whole, and I don’t accept it as a defense for some of what corporations do. I’m interested in having doctors and hospitals that first do no harm, even if it reduces how much money they make, because it’s the right thing to do. Similarly, I want some media that informs and uncovers even if it doesn’t bring them in the big bucks.

    To make explicit my original point: in hearing the Marketplace article, I was struck that I seldom hear similar articles about Barack Obama. In fact, if I swapped Michelle’s name for his, it sounded weird to me. And the reason for that is because we don’t talk about the President’s style like we do the First Lady’s, and in fact we focus on what the First Lady wears to the detriment of what she does. Fixing that is not an easy process, but it would be easier if many media outlets weren’t continuing the “what is she wearing now?” storyline.

  22. Jim
    on February 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    “are you guys saying that the media shouldn’t focus more on her actions than on her clothes?”
    Nope. I never actually posited an “ought.” But when you say “should,” from what standpoint? The media’s? Yours as a citizen? Society’s as a whole? Michelle’s? These are all different oughts.

    But I still have yet to see sufficient evidence that the media actually does report more about Michelle’s fashion than her actions. There are too many variables at play here. Taking the Google News Test, for example, the algorithm that chooses the stories to show is almost definitely based in part on click-through ratio. Thus, if the number of stories are equal, if more people want to read about fashion, you will tend to see more of that.

  23. on February 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Ah, so you disagree that the media talks about her clothing to the detriment of her accomplishments? Can you suggest an approach to measuring how much the media talks about Michelle Obama’s clothes that you would find acceptable? If not, then there’s no real need to continue discussing, as I’m positing a problem that you don’t accept is real and could not prove to your satisfaction exists.

  24. Jim
    on February 11, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Short of a scientific study, no. Which is why I’m confused that this amount of anecdotal evidence was enough to convince you.

  25. on February 11, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    In the absence of such a study, I have my experience reading newspapers and blogs for years, looking at Google News results, the fact that there are many books on First Ladies’ fashions, and how the New York Times’ web site search box suggests “fashion” and “dress” to complete any search on “Michelle Obama”. This also dovetails with prior sociological studies showing that women in a position of media scrutiny are judged primarily by their dress and appearance. I’d say, given all of that, that I’m surprised that you’re waiting on One More Certainly Definitive Study before saying it’s a problem, but that’s how discussions of gender bias and other similar issues typically go.

  26. Jim
    on February 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Thank you 😀

  27. Ally
    on February 14, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Ah, this reminds me of when I was at the Smithsonian back in December. I was overcome with excitement when I saw signs pointing to a First Ladies exhibit. “First Ladies exhibit!” I thought, “I’ll get to read about how Abigail Adams served as an ‘unofficial’ political adviser during the Revolution and how Dolly Madison ran into the burning White House to save paintings and how Betty Ford talked openly about addiction and rehab and how Michelle Obama is combating childhood obesity…” I practically skipped to the exhibit, overcome with excitement that for once the awesomeness of First Ladies would be showcased! WRONG. The First Ladies exhibit was nothing but dresses, specifically Inauguration Day dresses. Not one mention of the cool things a lot of these First Ladies did while their husbands were in office. No, it was all about what marvelous eye candy they were when their husbands were sworn into office.

    On a side note, I’m highly amused at the discussion going on in this comments thread. It gives me a chuckle to see men commenting so sagely on how women are treated by the media. Stephen, thank you for actually doing your research.

  28. Missy K.
    on February 16, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I had to stop reading after Jim wrote that “to be fair” a mother of two young daughters who also travels the country giving her time to try to improve the health of the nation’s children “doesn’t have a job.” My blood pressure just couldn’t take anymore.

    Michelle Obama has been a successful lawyer in her own right, and she still could be. Setting aside one’s own career temporarily for the betterment of the family unit may be “fitting the gender mold of one’s own volition,” but that does not make her contributions to her family and country so trivial that we should ignore all that humanitarian work and instead talk about how much her dress costs!

    If Mother Teresa were still around, and you were talking with her about her work, would you then turn around and ask her where she bought her shoes? After all, she was fitting into those gender roles being a nun and all.