When this year's political conventions began, I considered information gathering my priority. But it's hard to claim any responsible-citizen cred when these events are so entertaining. The eclectic (but never random) mix of soaring rhetoric, artful film, celebrities, statistics, vision, and dramatic personal histories demanded not only my attention but occasionally a box of tissues.
Of course, women's issues were highlighted significantly, contrasting with an earlier time when Secretary of State Clinton (referenced Wednesday night) provoked comment by her views, actions, and whether or not she'd worn a headband the previous day. This week, an online news scan would yield screenloads of opinion about the sartorial choices of convention speakers Ann Romney and Michelle Obama. Intense scrutiny of their designers and color palettes must be a compliment, evidence that they delivered enough thought-provoking content that their ensembles were just more convenient to assess confidently.
I can't discern much controversy there, myself. Both women chose lovely, American-style looks. Many of us female viewers would consider wearing those dresses ourselves, reported price tags (Romney, $1900-$2000, Obama, $450-$500) notwithstanding.
But Ann and Michelle invested wisely. Take a few hundred or a few thousand dollars and divide that cost by millions of television watchers/critics; the per-capita cost would be as slim as the heels on their much-discussed pumps. Besides, as Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly observed, "I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity."
The public's fascination with high-ranking political spouses has often been justified. Some of America's top-ranking spouses have fused fashion and viewpoint to inspire their own followings.
Ms. Lincoln wasn't the only White House fashionista with decided views (she deemed General Grant a "butcher" and the guard who left his post at Ford's Theatre "a murderer"). Nancy Reagan, who reflected that "acting was good training for the political life that lay ahead of us" raised eyebrows when, as wife of California's governor, she declared the gubernatorial mansion a firetrap and decamped with her family to alternate accommodations.
The contention that "A woman is like a teabag--only in hot water do you realize how strong she is" is sometimes attributed to Ms. Reagan but usually to Eleanor Roosevelt, who more than balanced her lackluster style portfolio with a remarkably productive life and a plethora of quotable thoughts. Jacqueline Kennedy, exhibiting clarity in priorities as well as costume, suggested that "When Harvard men say they have graduated from Radcliffe, then we've made it" and further judged "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."
Dolley Madison, celebrated for fashion-forwardness and a vibrant personality, directed her considerable networking skills to enhance the administrations of both Thomas Jefferson and her husband James. Dolley was so highly regarded as to be awarded an honorary seat in Congress. Samuel F.B. Morse invited her to the first public demonstration of his telegraph. Following the famous message "What hath God wrought", the second telegraphed correspondence was a greeting from Dolley to a friend.
The term "First Lady" wasn't used in Dolley's day (when designations like "Lady Washington" were still being auditioned). President Zachary Taylor is believed to have coined the phrase in tribute to Dolley at her funeral. At some point, the term caught on. Not that it's ever achieved universal approval; Jacqueline Kennedy commented that "It sounds like a saddle horse."