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During the political conventions and beyond, the women married to the men who would be president will be getting their own share of scrutiny. Fairly or not, part of the way they will be judged is by the clothes they wear. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates looks at what may be the ultimate fashion runway.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Let's be frank, shall we? In the banquet that is contemporary American fashion, astute observers say Washington, D.C. is rye crisp: neutral, dry and lacking in flavor.

The genres, as the movie "Legally Blonde" points out, tend to be limited.

(Soundbite of film, "Legally Blonde")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) Have you seen what they're wearing? Too Nancy, too Hillary, too Monica.

Ms. LETITIA BALDRIGE (Former Social Secretary): If their husbands are running for president, they have to watch everything.

BATES: Letitia Baldrige is intimately familiar with the constrictions these women face. She was social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy, a First Lady fashion icon. Baldrige says potential First Ladies have to be practically perfect to satisfy the press and the public.

Ms. BALDRIGE: They have to buy the right kind of fabric. They have to be careful with colors. They have to be careful with décolletage - oh and how. They've really got to follow stringent rules to be sort of blah - chic, elegant, but blah.

BATES: Fashion uniformity is a must, even at the highest levels. This spring, Laura Bush made news when three other ladies showed up at the White House for a black-tie dinner in the exact same $8,500 red lace Oscar de la Renta she'd chosen. Here's how Village Voice columnist Michael Musto described the gown.

Mr. MICHAEL MUSTO (Columnist, Village Voice): I think it looks like a very nice tablecloth. I would love to invite people over to have dinner on top of that dress.

BATES: Castigating First Ladies' wardrobes is about as old at the republic, says Carl Sferrazza Anthony. He's written 10 books on White House families and the role of First Ladies in American politics. Initially, Anthony says, he was paying more attention to these women's public influence than their clothes. Now he realizes clothes count.

Mr. CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY (First Lady Historian): I over time came to recognize it's very significant politically, but it's very significant symbolically.

BATES: Even though First Ladies aren't elected and have no constitutional duties, Anthony says they have a unique place in America's cultural mythology. He recalls one 20th century First Lady's exasperation with finding suitable clothes.

Mr. ANTHONY: As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, sometimes I feel as if I'm dressing the Washington Monument, and it is a symbolic role, and in many ways you are an actor.

BATES: And the costume is important. Robin Givhan is the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor of the Washington Post, and she has short patience with people who dismiss interesting candidate's wives clothes as sexist or unimportant.

Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Washington Post): You know, whenever people start talking about the clothing doesn't matter or shouldn't matter, my argument to them is if clothing didn't matter, then there'd be no such thing as the quote-unquote interview suit.

BATES: Both Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain have a firm sense of personal style, Givhan says, and as their husbands' campaigns thrust them further into the limelight, both women have emerged as celebrities in their own right, and their look is as scrutinized and criticized as any entertainer's would be. Robin Givhan has gotten this feedback on Cindy McCain.

Ms. GIVHAN: Two words that have come up a lot in describing Cindy McCain, which one, sort of depends on how you feel about her. Some say it's polished; others say it's uptight.

BATES: The verdict on Michelle Obama is less divided.

(Soundbite of television program, "Access Hollywood")

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman: It was a purple dress that cemented Michelle Obama as a style star.

BATES: That's according to "Access Hollywood." While polls had Barack Obama and John McCain running neck and neck, polled members of the fashion industry see a clear winner in the inevitable fashion comparisons of their wives.

Journalist Amy Fine Collins is co-curator of Vanity Fair's International Best-Dressed List.

Ms. AMY FINE COLLINS (Vanity Fair): Michelle Obama got far more votes than Cindy McCain did, and I think the reason why Michelle has this appeal is because there is something very contemporary about her.

BATES: Collins had this assessment of Mrs. McCain.

Ms. COLLINS: Cindy McCain is well put together. She's trim and sleek, very well-dressed, and more expensively dressed, I would say. But it is a look that has been seen before. She perfectly embodies the affluent wife of an important man.

BATES: That kind of high-end dressing is appreciated, said Collins, but not easily imitated.

(Soundbite of television program, "The View")

Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG (Host, "The View"): Hello and welcome to "The View." Please welcome our very special guest, co-host Michelle Obama.

(Soundbite of applause)

BATES: Collins says for many women Michelle Obama's look is more within reach.

Ms. COLLINS: She was wearing a $150 dress on "The View." That dress sold out all across the country.

BATES: That kind of influence is reminiscent of another First Lady. On what would be his last campaign trip, President John Kennedy proudly confessed the crowds that greeted them weren't always there to see him.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Three years ago I said that - introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I'm getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

President KENNEDY: Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: Letitia Baldrige says Michelle Obama is no Jackie Kennedy, but that's not a bad thing.

Ms. BALDRIGE: And I know everybody says she's the new Jacqueline Kennedy. I think that's ridiculous. She has her own sense of style, and Jackie wore sleeveless dresses all of her life because she knew she had good arms, and I'm sure that Michelle has been wearing sleeveless dresses all of her life, again because she has good arms.

BATES: Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony says Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain actually have a lot in common. He believes they wear what they wear well because both women are comfortable with themselves and their look. They wear their clothes, not the other way around.

Mr. ANTHONY: Psychologists will tell you, those small little physical cues are important because they transmit a message, and they transmit a message of comfort and confidence.

BATES: And a confident mate might be a presidential candidate's biggest asset. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music, "Rhapsody in Blue")

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Dress for success, as always.

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