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FASHION UNDERSTATEMENT

When Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry posed for a political family portrait last week, their wives, the potential first and second ladies, stood out for blending in.

Elizabeth Edwards wore a plain gray pantsuit and minimal makeup. Teresa Heinz Kerry, her hair humidity-frizzed, sported a blazer with linen pants.

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The images that appeared on front pages across the country the following days were sleepily all-American. The "Casual Corner" Edwards and the "Ann Taylor" Heinz Kerry were dressed like your cubicle-mate at work, your next door neighbor, or this week's carpool mom.

O where, O where has Jackie O gone?

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"Times have changed," said Dany Levy, editor-in-chief of DailyCandy.com, an e-mail bulletin of style and trends. "There was a time when Americans very much liked having a first lady that they could look up to and aspire to, in a Jackie O sort of way. The spotlight has shifted, I think. First ladies have become more figures of respect. I think it is a move to appeal to every woman, and not make the first lady be sort of an intimidating figure."

No matter the president, vice president or political hopeful, over the years the American public has been drawn to what his wife wears. During a depression, a cold war or a time of heightened terror alerts, the fashion sense of a political wife still means something. It says something about her. It says something about him.

Observers have already had their chance to size up Teresa Heinz Kerry. The outspoken millionaire tends to look the part, albeit in an understated way. She's been spotted in Chanel and cocooned in a pashmina. Still, much of her wardrobe leans more toward the simpler Ralph Lauren, king of high-end American fashion.

Kerry's naming of John Edwards as his running mate brought another wife into the public eye, Elizabeth. From her first photo-op, hand-in-hand with her husband, the style-conscious started in with the scrutinizing - and comparing her, looks-wise, to her handsome husband.

She's plump, with a kind smile, older than he is. Her plain-Jane jackets are a bit too snug. Like many American moms, she's even flirted with - and admittedly failed at - the South Beach Diet.

But in news accounts of both women, personal style has taken a back seat to other aspects of their lives - their family backgrounds, for example, their wealth, their motherhood, their professional accomplishments.

Elizabeth Edwards was herself once a practicing attorney and is a dedicated mom. Philanthropist Teresa Heinz Kerry is, among other things, famous for being heir to the $500 million Heinz Co. fortune.

In this day and age, those things mean more to Americans than what they pull out of the walk-in closet every morning, experts said.

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"I've followed all of the candidates and the candidates' wives since January," said Myra Gutin, historian and author of The President's Partner: The First Lady in the 20th Century. "And truthfully there hasn't been that much attention on fashion."

Possibly because there isn't much of it to speak of.

Unlike the ultra-chic Jacqueline Kennedy, who lived in Oleg Cassini, waved to the American public in Chanel and ran errands in Valentino, today's political wives seem stuck in dress-down Friday.

They may be, some observers said, purposefully trying to avoid stealing their husbands' thunder - or worse, embarrassing them.

"I think the wives of political candidates, like doctors, observe the maxim 'First do no harm,'" said Lewis L. Gould, a retired professor from the University of Texas who has edited biographies of first ladies. "If there's a certain amount of modest dowdiness, it's because it's really politically dangerous if you do much else."

Over-the-top fashions or a really awful sense of style can give political opponents and the scrutinizing public too much fodder for fault-finding, Gould said.

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"Today's first lady has to deal with an increased public awareness of style and fashion," said image consultant Dianne M. Daniels, noting that no one - especially the wife of a political figure - wants to end up the subject of harsh media criticism for fashion faux pas. "Conservative seems to be the rule."

Presidential hopeful Howard Dean's wife, Judith Steinberg, sparked many water cooler conversations during her five minutes of fame for adamantly refusing to buckle to the pressures of being a candidate's other half - whether the pressure related to her anti-fashion, or her successful medical practice.

Steinberg's work-in-the-yard clothes, limp hair and no make-up made a definite statement: I'm a doctor, not a political appendage.

"Almost all of these women are women who have achieved something on their own," Gutin said. "I think that the expectation might be to have the achievements speak for themselves."

Today's wives of the political powerful are often themselves working women. Coiffed hair and haute couture don't fit into their lives any more than such luxuries would in any one of ours.

But, like it or not, they are undeniably thrust into the public eye. And no amount of family money, professional accomplishments or public favor can protect them from amateur fashion critiques.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton - although a high-powered lawyer - still took painful hits about her fashion errors (remember the headband?) and her thick ankles, said Gina Pia Bandini, editor-in-chief of the online magazine FashionFinds.com.

Eventually, despite her credentials, Clinton was forced to change her style. As a governor's wife, Clinton wore thick glasses. On the campaign trail with her husband, she dabbled with those regrettable headbands. Today, as a senator, she has a more classic, professional look - black pantsuits, chic but easy hair.

The makeover comes with the territory.

"The job of first lady does demand that you start to pay some attention to your clothes," Gutin said. "Even someone as venerable as Eleanor Roosevelt had to go to a designer or a dressmaker for her clothes eventually."

Despite the perennial focus on what political wives wear, experts said, most first ladies start out fashion-backward.

"I think Jackie Kennedy was the anomaly," Bandini said. "Basically, first ladies are usually pretty dowdy, though they were better coiffed [than Edwards or Kerry]."

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Nancy Reagan, though expensively dressed, still came off like someone's wealthy, overly powdered grandmother. Mamie Eisenhower was frighteningly frumpy, and Mrs. Andrew Johnson smoked a pipe. Lyndon Johnson was a thousand times better-dressed than Lady Bird.

"No one looked at Rosalynn Carter and said, 'Wow! Look at what that lady has on,'" said historian Tim Blessing, from Pennsylvania State University and Alvernia College.

The difference, experts say, is that today's first ladies don't necessarily have to be fabulous, but they do have to be somewhat fashion-conscious.

Hillary Clinton had to sit for a Vogue cover. Laura Bush, never a big shopper, has become buddy-buddy with designer Carolina Herrera and warmed to her fashion advice. Mom-in-law and former first lady Barbara Bush improved her off-the-rack style as well.

"Over time, she shed a little bit of weight. She started to be dressed by Arnold Scaasi. She became a little more up-to-date," Gutin said.

In our nation's infancy, presidents often came from aristocracy, so it was expected that their wives would dress more like princesses than pilgrims.

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Today's first wives may warm to the idea of designers and color swatches, but Grace Kelly or Jackie O, they'll likely never be.

"These women are saying, 'Of course I want to look good, but what I do is more important,"' Gutin said.

And besides, Levy said, the wives of Edwards and Kerry - the two latest subjects of style-watchers - are doing their part on the campaign trail just by being who they are.

"These women aren't eyesores or slobs," she said. "They're just your basic upstanding American woman. It says more about the president himself if he's chosen a good woman and not a bombshell. If John Edwards were to be married to an Anna Nicole Smith type ... now that would be something to talk about."

In the end, history-buff Blessing said, first ladies can do little to help a man get into the White House or stay there - whether she's a style icon like Jackie or style invisible like Laura Bush.

"Obviously, a wife can harm a husband whether they're in politics or in business. But can they help them? The answer is: Not a whole bunch," Blessing said. "If a politician is a yahoo, it really doesn't matter how turned out his wife is."


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