Dressing the part for the party

Ann Romney picks Republican red: Michelle Obama does red, white, and blue her way.

In the Republican corner was chic challenger Ann Romney.

The pretty wife of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney looked elegant last week in a red Oscar de la Renta shirtwaist. With its cinched waist, cuffed sleeves, and slightly popped collar, the simple yet classy dress brought a bit of personal flair to the red stage.

In the Democratic corner was reigning style champ first lady Michelle Obama. Her arms were toned in her raspberry-red silk jacquard Tracy Reese. And with her super on-trend, gray-and-beige (greige) manicure, Obama brought a sense of fashion-forwardness to the blue party.

This was no ordinary catwalk. When it comes to this level of politics, the stakes are high - especially when it's the wife of the guy who's running for office.

"We are staking our futures on these people, and we've become accustomed to looking for visual cues to help us make a decision," said Janice Lewis, chair of fashion design at Moore College of Art & Design.

"I mean, what if Michelle wore red shoes with [Christian Louboutin] red soles? We'd never stop talking about it."

Although Obama said beforehand that her sartorial choice held no hidden message - "I'm doing what women do. It's like, how do I feel? What looks right? What kind of movement do I need? What's practical when it comes right down to it?" - don't believe for a minute that either of these women were merely getting dressed for an evening out.

Their outfits, both great choices, spoke volumes about who they are, and what kind of campaigns their husbands are running.

"Both women used their fashion choices to connect and communicate their authenticity as well as their relevance and their sense of patriotism," explained Natalie Nixon, director of the strategic design master's of business administration program at Philadelphia University. "In this case fashion was far from frivolous and superficial; the women's choices said a lot about each woman's identities."

Take the designers. Romney went with Oscar de la Renta, one of America's most beloved designers, who has been dressing first ladies since the days of Jacqueline Kennedy. He's from the Dominican Republic and lives the American dream, which might make voters think the Romneys are pro-immigrant. But this wealthy-born designer creates for the 1 percent (maybe 0.5 percent). And he has spent the better part of this administration criticizing Obama for her style choices.

By choosing a couturier who is favored heavily by first ladies, Romney not only is saying she's not Obama. She's saying she's practically living in the White House. Her choice cost approximately $2,000, but de la Renta designs can easily cost tens of thousands.

Obama, on the other hand, went with Reese, who comes from a working-class family in Detroit. She's among a new breed of young American designers - along with other Obama favorites such as Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo, and Narciso Rodriguez - who do things differently. They were the first to bring high fashion to the masses (think lines for Target).

Like Obama, Reese has a close relationship with her family - after each of her New York Fashion Week runway presentations, her father hands her a bouquet of flowers. A Tracy Reese dress generally costs $300 to $1,000; this "tweaked" dress - an already existing dress was enhanced for Obama - was about $450.

A Tracy Reese dress not only is trendy, it strips down the political status quo.

"So much of fashion is instinct," said Renee Weiss Chase, professor of fashion design at Drexel University. "What people like and gravitate to is very much about their sensibility based on their culture and where they are in their lives at that point in time."

(It's fair to note here that neither woman chose a designer who manufactures mostly in America.)

When it came to accessories, same deal. Romney played it safe with expected black open-toed shoes.

But gray nail polish? And technically, arms aren't an accessory, but a buff first lady is something we've never seen.

Colors, of course, say a lot in the world of politics.

Romney's dress was true red - not crimson, not salmon - a choice that was unmistakably Republican and communicated an unwillingness to veer from a classic script.

"This kind of dress is what political wives have been wearing for years when they are in the limelight," said Weiss Chase.

Obama's dress, pundits say, was less predictable. The shade was a pinkish red that featured golden stitching with a silvery blue bottom, a more in-between choice that might convey a willingness to weigh options. And it couldn't be ignored that the colors of the American flag were represented throughout it.

"With that dress," Weiss said, "she carried fashion beyond where it's been to a new place."

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.