Skirting the Issues with Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain


Susan Sarandon is mean. She is standing on the red carpet at a party celebrating Longchamp’s 60th anniversary, clutching a little dog, when I accost her with the question I have been bothering people with all night: “Who is more chic, Cindy or Michelle?”

Admittedly, my query is inane (not that Sarandon ever gets to hear it), but after all, this is a party to celebrate the birthday of a handbag company, not a convocation of Nobel laureates. Perhaps it’s the sycophantic delivery with which I greet her—”Hi, Susan! I’m a big fan!”—that causes her to look at me as if I am a creepy-crawly expelled from her beloved Fido during a routine deworming.

What can I do but move on? Chin up! After all, I came here to ask fellow fashion people about Cindy and Michelle because, sad to say, this is the type of thing that interests me (and that I expect to return to ad nauseam between now and November). Let me say right off that I think both potential first ladies are gorgeous, and that even though I’ll kill myself if McCain wins (at least I’m not threatening to leave the country, as Sarandon always says she will and never does), I do love Cindy, a size-two Barbie doll with drugged-out eyes and sacks of cash. And, of course, Michelle is flawless.

This party is surprisingly star-studded. (How come you’re not all in the Hamptons?) Flocks of girls with stick-straight hair, sporting black shifts and clipboards, guard the door; upstairs, there are mini-burgers, a sound system that keeps blowing a fuse and enraging the DJ, and gigantic works of art by someone named Jean-Luc Moerman, whose appeal frankly eludes me.

The first friendly face I see belongs to Alex Dymek, a design wunderkind who can turn a pile of glitter and a piece of cardboard into a hat you can’t live without. Who’s cooler, Alex: Cindy or Michelle? “Cindy!” he says without taking a breath. “Because I think it’s younger and it’s more . . .” Huh? Who do you think I’m talking about? “I have no idea,” he confesses cheerfully. “The Brady Bunch?”

OK, from now on, I’d better give last names. I go up to Kelly Cutrone, the publicist in charge of this shindig, who is rapidly becoming famous in her own right (she’s on The Hills and in the new movie The Doorman), and she doesn’t disappoint. “I love that Michelle worked Muslim harem pants with a black dolman- sleeve top—as if Omar Sharif and Diana Arbus had sex! Amazing—she wins!” And what of the lovely Cindy? “She looks like a baseball player’s wife,” Cutrone sniffs. I know it’s off-topic, but I can’t resist asking: What about Madonna? Does she look like a baseball player’s wife? “Marilyn and DiMaggio were a much hotter couple,” Cutrone intones.

Wait—who’s that over there? It’s Lindsay Price from Lipstick Jungle (OK, I haven’t actually ever heard of this person, but there’s a general buzz and I ask someone). Price, who is beautiful and whose face and lips have a curiously glazed, toasty quality, says: “Oh, Obama—she’s very well put together. But Cindy’s always appropriate; she looks great.” Price’s date for the evening, her makeup artist and the guy presumably responsible for her beige aura, is not so genteel: “Cindy’s too blond, and she needs eyebrows,” he snorts.

Oh my God, why are all those flashbulbs going off? It’s Brooke Shields—someone even I recognize! I try to reach her with my earth-shattering question, but she’s drowning in a sea of photographers. Not to worry: Two seconds later, Sarandon strolls in—but you already know how that turns out.

I’m about to call it a night when the big “get” of the evening arrives: an original gossip girl, Blair Waldorf herself, an actress with the improbable name Leighton Meester. (If your last name was Meester, would you call the kid Leighton?) She sure is tiny, in an itty-bitty black dress and high shoes and a pair of spectacular diamond earrings. She tries to dodge me, but I persist. She looks really puzzled and scared, like I’ve asked her to explain Occam’s Razor. She finally says, “Um, Obama?”, but seems so skittish that photographer Caroline Torem Craig, who is standing nearby and tonight is wearing a necklace that must have once been a furniture tassel (I love Caroline), tries to help. “How about both Cindy and Michelle?” Caroline suggests in her best maternal voice. Meester is immensely relieved. “Oh, yes! Good—both!” she says, then scurries away from me as if her life depends on it.

The next day, the election still on my mind (as it is every day), I go way, way uptown, to the Museum of the City of New York on 103rd Street, to see “Campaigning for President,” an exhibit of election-related memorabilia.

I’ve always been a sucker for this museum. Years ago, I saw an exhibit here about the heyday of bohemian Greenwich Village that had more influence on how I think about clothes than a thousand runway shows. Plus, there are two permanent displays—antique toys and show-business ephemera—that interest me deeply. (In fact, aside from fashion and politics, these may be the only two things that interest me deeply.)

I want to see how women figure, if at all, in these earlier presidential races, whether as candidates’ wives or, even rarer, candidates themselves—or just as avid female members of the electorate. Although there is one curious Andrew Jackson hairpin from 1832 (who would even see it? You’d have to get pretty close), it isn’t until 1920, when women get the vote, that the floodgates of junky election stuff open to include, for example, a Warren Harding change purse. There are a number of depressing talismans from the dark days of the 1950s, like potholders inscribed “Adlai” and “Estes” and a pair of those disgustingly dainty white gloves, which women were forced to wear practically every waking moment 60 years ago, decorated with “I like Ike” in red and blue. So it comes as a delightful surprise to discover cat’s-eye sunglasses whose frames read either “Don’t be static, vote Democratic” (wonder why that never caught on) or “I like Ike, peace, and prosperity.” Better still is a pair of Mad Men–worthy sheer nylon hose that shriek “Win With Adlai.”

A few years later, things really begin to rock. A cheesy fake-gold charm bracelet dangles members of JFK’s immediate family; a Goldwater girl could have sported a gold-fringed belt that looks like a sleazy sash. (Was she a stripper?) And how come I go to the flea market every weekend and have never found a pair of John Kerry flip-flops, printed with that senator’s allegedly contradictory positions?

But perhaps the most exciting discovery, at least sartorially speaking, is the remarkable survival of a trio of paper dresses from 1968, variously extolling Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and Bobby Kennedy.

Oh, would that we could go back in time and see the paper face of Bobby Kennedy slithering off the hollow frame of Leighton Meester.