Wonder what Kate Middleton’s going to wear down the Westminster Abbey aisle this Friday? Or what Michelle Obama’s going to wear on just about any given day of the week? Recently, I chatted with T+L contributing editor and style guru Kate Betts—hot off the heels of publishing her new book, Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style (Clarkson Potter, $35)—about the fashion sensibilities of first ladies around the globe.
Q: People the world over have been enraptured by Michelle Obama’s sense of style. Considering her presence on the international stage, what sort of statement is she making about herself—and America—through what she wears?
A: She is making a statement about the power of confidence. The idea of wearing young, unknown American designers perfectly mirrors many of the ideas her husband campaigned on: new faces, new ideas, change. And at the recent state dinner for the President of China, she made a very bold statement by not wearing a dress designed by an American. A lot of people were upset about that—particularly the American fashion industry. But to my mind her self-possession and confidence define American style better than any label in her dress ever would.
Q: Let’s pretend you’re the fashion police. Describe the five latest American first ladies in 15 words or less:
Michelle Obama: Her casual confidence really defines our time. She is a post-modern icon.
Laura Bush: She didn't really want people to notice her, so she didn't emphasize her style.
Hillary Clinton: She resisted the notion that her appearance mattered.
Barbara Bush: Even though she was matronly, her pearls were copied by women around the country.
Nancy Reagan: She brought a Hollywood glamour to Washington. The people loved it, even during a recession.
Q: Why did Jackie O. strike such a chord? How do she and Michelle Obama compare?
A: Jackie O. came to the White house with an incredible fluency in fashion and then went on to construct her own image very precisely. She had style because she was consistent, not because the actual clothing she wore was so amazing or idiosyncratic. She and Michelle Obama came from very different backgrounds, but they are similar because they both wear very simple clothes and styles that are easy to emulate.
Q: Stylistically speaking, how does Michelle Obama stack up against model turned musician turned first lady of France Carla Bruni-Sarkozy? Sonsoles Espinosa Díaz, the wife of Spain’s president, is also quite chic.
A: Michelle Obama is distinct from the other first ladies because she is American and very casual—she is the most casual first lady in terms of her style that we have ever seen. She also dresses for herself, as opposed to dressing for the job, which sets her apart from Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Sonsoles Espinosa Diaz, both of whom have a very formal, uniform-style approach to dressing for the job of first lady. I don't think Carla, if shewasn't first lady of France, would wear Dior coat dresses. That's just not her style.
Q: And what about Kate Middleton, soon to be first lady (in a sense) of England?
A: She is younger and newer to the spotlight so her style has not yet been completely refined. Yet, you can already see that she has a more casual—more American—approach to dressing. To me she almost looks like a Ralph Lauren model! That said, she will have to be more formal in her new role so I imagine she will develop more of a uniform, too.
Q: Like Michelle Obama, it seems that whatever Middleton wears is bound to sell out.
A: Both of them are fashion icons in the sense that women look up to them for their style, but they also both wear very affordable labels—J. Crew, H&M, Reiss—so women can actually buy the same outfits. This is a pretty new phenomenon.
Q: In your opinion, what does Middleton’s sense of style say about the next generation of British royalty?
A: I think it says that they are more down to earth and less aloof. She is definitely more casual than her predecessors and I think that speaks to her generation.
Q: We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask: what do you think Middleton should wear down the aisle this Friday? She’s made it clear that the details of her wedding dress are to remain a secret until then.
A: For the royal wedding, she must wear a British designer. And it has to have sleeves, that's for sure! Westminster Abbey is also a pretty big place, so she will have to have some volume in the dress and some drama—a train for example. It will be more streamlined I imagine than Princess Diana's dress. Middleton is a modern and very fit woman, and she will want to look her age.
Christine Ajudua is an assistant editor at Travel + Leisure.