Thu, Aug 05, 2004 - Page 16 News List

A catwalk battle for the presidency

A fashion war between the wives of the US presidential candidates, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Laura Bush, is a political minefield


Cherie Blair, Bernadette Chirac, Lyudmila Putin and Laura Bush at a meeting their husbands attended in June in Sea Island, Georgia. Another battle of sorts has intensified following the Democratic National Convention -- this one over the many contrasts in taste and appearance and comportment between the potential first ladies.


Teresa Heinz Kerry has presented herself to Americans as a multilingual free spirit, a woman with a taste for a 1970s-era Jacqueline Bisset coiffure and a habit of tossing a sweater over her shoulders, as if her political outings demanded no more of her than patio luncheons in Nantucket. Her gold tank watch rests loosely on her wrist; her favorable position on millennial-era cosmetic enhancements remains a matter of record. Were she to take up residence in the White House as first lady in a John Kerry administration, no one would expect her to fade into the chintz.

She is in many ways a contrast to Laura Bush, who has sought above all to look imperturbably well-kempt. After nearly four stressful years in the White House, Bush's smile remains dependably attractive, her hair neatly clipped and her neutral suits, one indistinguishable from the next, are as proper as schoolgirls' uniforms.

And so another battle of sorts has intensified following the Democratic National Convention -- this one over the many contrasts in taste and appearance and comportment between the potential first ladies. It is a pageant that many might prefer did not exist, but which nonetheless occupies a corner of voters' minds.

In the popular view, the scrutiny and fascination with the style of first ladies began with Jackie Kennedy, and redoubled with Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. But a focus on fashion is not so exclusively modern a preoccupation, either by the electorate or by first ladies themselves.

Fashion memorably concerned a number of presidential wives who predate the mid-20th century, a few of whom wielded a distinct influence over the tastes of US women at a time when the celebrity culture's tentacles were not yet so all-entangling.

Kerry's look of vague aversion to the

constraints of political life, in fact, might call to mind Grace Goodhue Coolidge who, as the wife of Calvin Coolidge, who served as president from 1923 to 1929, arrived in Washington to observations that she "kept her wits at the end of her tongue." With her lean frame, the result of a passion for hiking and swimming, Coolidge was, in the opinion of the historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, America's first ambassador of women's sportswear.

"It was the 1920s, Gertrude Ederle had swum the English Channel and there was this great sense of excitement about women and sports, and Grace Coolidge embodied this new athletic ethos," said Anthony, the author of several books about first ladies and life in the White House. Newsreels captured her in mountain gear at the couple's vacation home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She adapted herself to flapper style in a manner so admired that she was awarded a gold locket by the couturier Charles Worth on behalf of the French garment industry.

Coolidge adored red and named her dog Rob Roy as a sly show of disapproval of prohibition. In the June 1927 issue of Vanity Fair, she was named to the magazine's Hall of Fame because, as the magazine said, "she is the first lady of the land and the wife of the President of the United States; because she is one of the best liked and most charming hostesses in Washington."

Few political wives, though, have ever commanded quite the sartorial attention that the country heaped upon Frances Folsom, who at the age of 22, on a June day in 1886, became the wife of former president Grover Cleveland, a man who was nearly three decades her senior.

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