Michelle vs. Ann: Contrasting Fashion Belies Contrasting (Family) Values

OK. I'm going sexist for a moment in order to discuss two successful professional women's hair and clothes.

How Michelle Obama appeared during her speech at the Democratic National Convention was crafted to distinguish her in every way from Ann Romney.

Obama's slightly imperfect hair (I became obsessed with my desire to spray the cowlick back in place) differed from Romney's perfect do (although, to be fair, both had used so much hairspray that they should have been wearing "no smoking" signs). Compare Obama's shimmery, pink Tracy Reese confection with a surprising blue floral hem (something a slightly frumpy soccer mom would certainly consider elegant) to Romney's bright red (read: red, white, and blue) crinoline-y Oscar de la Renta starched to within an inch of its life; Obama's bare arms and legs with Romney's Mormon modesty; pink J. Crew heels vs. designer pumps.

I'm not saying the clothes and hair were not an accurate reflection of each woman's personal style, just that Obama's handlers made sure that difference -- accessible vs. aloof -- was glaringly obvious.

Less controllable was how much more likable and sincere Obama came off. Perhaps she's just a better actress. But when she spoke about how much she loves Barack, I believed her. Romney's professions of affection for Mitt seemed scripted -- even though both speeches were likely written, vetted, and approved by a team of communications experts. Both women were speaking to their party's faithful, but Romney's tone-deaf gushing didn't help her husband any with swing voters.

And their outfits reflected a striking difference in the speeches themselves. Romney (whose chatter about hers and Mitt's basement apartment seemed like just another bright shining, er, unlikelihood) telegraphed her husband's interpretation of the "American Dream": work hard and you can become successful -- that is, rich and famous.

Obama (whose anecdote about hers and Barack's student loan debt was likely true) offered a different view: that one's values are more important than one's bank account; that it's OK for your family to move up the ladder of success more slowly -- and perhaps even reach the top -- as long as you teach your children that spiritual wealth is more important than material wealth.

The Repubs thereby ceded the "family values" high ground to the Dems. Romney reinforced her husband's "rugged," unabashed pride in success, despite her family-oriented plaint about raising five boys (no mention of the nannies here); Obama said flat out that her husband cared about regular (i.e., middle-class) people -- and more about their children's values than their economic status -- because he (and she) is a regular, middle-class person himself.

It's the difference between aspirational individualism and inspirational collectivism. And if the wives' jobs were to paint a warmer, fuzzier image for their husbands, it's hard not to feel like Barack Obama would be more fun to come home to -- even if that home did not have a few Cadillacs in the car elevator.