The 'Desperate Housewife' look comes to Washington

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The presidential race may only just have come to an end, but the battle for fashion supremacy was sewn up months ago. Step forward Michelle Obama, who has wowed the fashion world with her sophisticated take on political dressing.

The look of America's first ladies has been reminiscent of the uptight Bree from Desperate Housewives – think boxy, coloured trouser and skirt suits, often in shantung silk. Nancy Reagan pioneered the neat skirt suit and Laura Bush followed her lead. Their look was a conflicting mix of submissive 1950s Stepford wife in pussy-bow blouse and 1980s businesswoman in shoulder-padded suit. But Mrs Obama has found a more modern way to dress that expresses her femininity.

One of her favourite silhouettes over the campaign has been the fitted sheath dress. She wore a purple version by Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto when her husband claimed the Democratic nomination, and a turquoise V-neck style by the same designer to the Democratic Convention.

In contrast to Laura Bush and her one-time rival Cindy McCain, Mrs Obama is au fait with many younger, more fashion-conscious labels like Thakoon and Azzedine Alaïa. Michelle chooses sophisticated jewel colours, while Cindy opted for garish shades that were intended to be gung ho and uplifting but were actually deeply unsettling. Remind you of anyone? In 2001, Hillary Clinton told a group of Yale students that "hair matters". Mrs Obama may not have heeded this advice directly, but her soft, Jackie O-style bob suggests approachability and intelligence. And her coiffure isn't the only way that Obama has been channelling Jackie O. Her shift dresses and chunky pearls all evoke the iconic first lady. Unlike Jackie O – or Sarah Palin – Mrs Obama has mixed her labels with items that the average voter could afford. The black and white dress that she wore on US talk show The View cost only $148 (£92) from the aptly named White House/Black Market.

One of the few things more exciting than an Obama presidency is what his wife will wear to the inaugural ball. Chances are that she will wear her patriotism on her sleeve by plumping for a US label.

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