Fashions Speak Louder than Words?

Nicely tying back to both of my last two posts, The Huffington Post’s Bonnie Fuller (that’s right, a female op-ed writer for the blog) on November 11, 2008 wrote an article (not, however, published on the front page of the site) entitled “Why Michelle’s Red Dress Shook the World” (that’s right, flagrant trivialization of the First Lady through close analysis of her clothes). Fuller jumps in head first, opening her piece with these words:

Michelle O. made the power statement of her political career yesterday, and she did it without uttering a word. The red dress that she wore on her first visit to the White House said it all, and it said a lot.

Ah, so now Michelle Obama, the Harvard-educated lawyer need not speak for herself with actual “words”. Her most important statements are made, apparently, by her CLOTHES, in this case, a red dress she wore to Monday’s White House visit. “Hear me Carla Bruni-Sarkozy,” Fuller writes, “you’ve been surpassed as a First Lady force in the news, and yes, even as a force in fashion.” Because of course that’s what some of the highest-profile women in the world care most about–outshopping each other.

Apparently, the red dress had a lot of talking to do–not only did it tell Ms. Fuller that Michelle Obama is a fashion force of international proportions and that she’s patriotic, it also, apparently made a clear statement that she’s “powerful, but not threatening”…whew, what a relief. Fuller writes:

There’s something about a woman in a suit that American men and women still find intimidating. A suit strikes them as too cold, too impersonal, and too ambitious.

Fuller even writes that this state of affairs is unfortunate and unfair. But what she doesn’t seem to realize is that by writing this very article, she’s participating in the perpetuation of a climate where people even view dissecting Ms. Obama’s clothing choices rather than her credentials as legitimate. Yet, even after declaring the dissection of Obama’s clothing in this way “ridiculously unfair,” Fuller ploughs on, adding two further “statements” to the list of things that the apparently very vociferous red dress had to say–#4 “She will be Barack’s Best Friend and Life Partner, not his political partner” and #5 “She’s totally modern”–modern enough, in fact, to

choose a dress with enough curve to flatter her pear shape. Modern enough to have the confidence to stand out in red. Modern enough to understand that one dress can speak to the American people, and make many, many crucial points.

Was the red dress vintage? Because all of the messages it seems to be spouting sure reek of a bygone era. I know Michelle Obama has much more to say to the American people than her dress ever could. Unfortunately, if journalism like this continues to let such trivialities consume the public discourse about Obama and so many other intelligent and accomplished women, their efforts to speak for themselves, to redefine modern womanhood through words and actions instead of through dresses or hairstyles, will continue to be difficult.

Fuller’s full article can be found here.

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About Katie Heimer

I'm a graduate student of media studies at the New School. My main academic interests in the field center around issues of women in the media (both in terms of representations of and access to) and the overlapping issues of media reform and education. This website will serve as a chronicle of my progress and growth, both intellectually and personally, as I navigate my master's of media studies.
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