NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cindy McCain or Michelle Obama for the White House?
Among fashionistas, the wives of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are drawing the kind of enthusiasm that Nancy Reagan and Jacqueline Kennedy once attracted.
As might be expected, style mavens’ critiques focus less on what the potential first ladies say or do than on what they wear.
While Obama won fans for wearing a relatively affordable $150 dress on talk show “The View,” McCain drew attention for her expensive tastes. Vanity Fair magazine estimated one outfit she wore at the Republican National Convention this week was worth $300,000.
The choice a week ago of John McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who took part in beauty pageants in her youth, also has caused a buzz. But Mickey Blum, director of survey research at Baruch College, said her style could not be compared to McCain and Obama.
“That’s a different look because you have to look a little bit more serious and professional,” Blum said.
The consensus at New York Fashion Week is that both potential first ladies have style but most designers in the traditionally Democratic-leaning industry would much rather have the chance to dress Obama over McCain.
“I am in the fashion industry, I live in New York — I’m probably not going to go for McCain to dress,” designer Rebecca Taylor told Reuters.
“Michelle is really fresh and she could sort of go where Jackie O went given the right sort of tools and grooming,” she said. “I think it could be nice for America to have somebody who’s a little bit more stylish as their first lady.”
Obama, 44, is a Princeton and Harvard educated lawyer who has appeared in Vogue and was named on Vanity Fair’s 2008 International Best Dressed List for the second time.
Obama has won particular praise for a purple sheath dress and black belt she wore at a rally in June when her husband clinched the Democratic nomination as candidate for the November 4 election.
“She has a kind of style which is accessible and also spans generations, it appeals to young girls and their grandmothers, it translates across class lines (and) racial lines,” said Amy Fine Collins, special correspondent with Vanity Fair.
“Cindy McCain’s look is one we are familiar with, she’s absolutely right and absolutely appropriate for the role she’s in, but it doesn’t feel new,” she said. “She has expensive tastes and less of a grab-it-and-go approach to clothes.”
McCain, 54, chairs her family’s business, beer distributor Hensley and Co., and has worked for international charities. Imogen Fox wrote in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that McCain is “always immaculate, with never a hair out of place.”
“But this striving for perfection is also her un-doing: she doesn’t know how to have fun with fashion,” she said.
Designers and commentators note McCain favors tailored jackets and skirts, while Obama tends to wear dresses.
Designer Michael Angel said he would prefer to dress Obama and would create “the ultimate little shift dress” for her in a print silk twill. For McCain he could contribute a printed silk blouse for her to wear under one of her suits.
Raul Melgoza, creative director at Luca Luca, said he would be happy dressing either woman.
“Although they are different personalities — McCain being more western and Obama being compared to Kennedy — I feel like the common thread between them both is that they have a classic sensibility to their clothing,” Melgoza told Reuters.
If the style of Obama and McCain has fashionistas buzzing, does it have any influence in the campaign?
“I don’t think anyone’s going to win or lose based on what the wives are wearing,” Blum said. “What it does is give a general impression of what the wife is like and maybe family.”
“Cindy McCain may have a look that’s almost a little too polished and put together and her clothes might look a bit too expensive and out of reach for the average person,” Blum said. “Michelle Obama dresses in clothes that seem much more accessible to ordinary women and working moms.”
For Tim Gunn, style guru and mentor to the fledgling fashion designers on the television reality show “Project Runway,” there is no contest.
“Michelle really epitomizes American style and she’s not afraid to show her shape,” he told New York Magazine.
“She’s just an alluring woman. And Cindy with her suits, and she’s all buttoned up, she’s just soooo — she just looks like she’s duct-taped!”
Additional reporting by Jan Paschal; Editing by Mark Egan and Frances Kerry