Dress sells the politico

For the past few months we've been glued to our TV screens watching the US presidential campaign. And most of us also loved the politics of the fashion.

For the past few months we've been glued to our TV screens watching the US presidential campaign. And most of us also loved the politics of the fashion.

While many people marvelled at the momentous campaign and victory for Barack Obama, who is to become the first black president of the US, others were ogling the outfits of the women, whether wives - Michelle Obama or Cindy McCain - or wanna-be vice-president Sarah Palin.

Both camps received a fair amount of media coverage for their outfits.

Remember the outrage among American voters after Palin spent a fortune on her wardrobe?

And who can forget the beautiful outfits of Michelle Obama, who always looked put-together and sophisticated?

Fashion designer Hangwai Nongovela of Rubicon Clothing says she could not help but take note of Obama's wardrobe.

"She was a pleasure to look at. I like her figure-accentuating dresses. They express confidence and a sense of humility. She was not too blinged-up. She was simple," says Nongovela.

According to Mohau Pheko, a political analyst, wardrobe plays a huge part in assessing someone because ultimately the clothes are the first thing one sees.

"The image we present says a lot about how we value ourselves. The way you dress can sway public opinion about you. People look at the way you look before they even talk to you," says Pheko.

But should wardrobes be a benchmark for evaluating presidents' wives?

Pheko says clothes make a First Lady, but most people don't seem to get this.

"Politicians need to know that people want to associate themselves with people whom they think can help them. If you dress in frumpy clothes people will think you won't be able to change their lives if you can't even help yourself," says Pheko.

On our shores the politics of wardrobe have never been that much of an issue.

Pheko attributes this to the class issue and the background of South African politics.

"Most black politicians come from poor and middle-class backgrounds. During the struggle days, simplicity was what connected leaders to their people. People avoided anything that gave the impression of superiority. Simplicity said, 'I am the better servant'," says Pheko.

Things have since changed.

Now the role of First Lady is iconic and cannot be filled by just anyone.

So let's take a look at our local political godmothers by starting with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

It's fair to say she oozed charm, was sophisticated, beautiful and elegant.

According to local stylist Iko Mash, Madikizela-Mandela did not have any competition.

"She had some colour in her wardrobe and she liked to wear a bit of make-up, which a lot of female politicians these days seem to go without. There was a certain regal air about her that allowed her fashion choices to be bigger and bolder. She was the glamour girl who dressed for herself and was very aware of her personal public."

Graça Machel, on the other hand, says Mash, comes across as rigid.

"She lacks poise and her Afro is a turn-off. Her glasses are so 80s and she needs serious wardrobe therapy," he says.

Mash also criticises former First Lady Zanele Mbeki for not making enough of an effort.

"She never carried a bag and she also did not have poise."

But Pheko disagrees. He says Mbeki had an understated style, but always looked elegant.

"She had an air of sophistication and class at any event to which she accompanied her husband. While she let her husband do the talking, she showed her true colours through her wardrobe. Her style did not shout: 'I am here' but when she walked into a room it said: 'look at me'."

And what if Jacob Zuma becomes our next president? Do his wives embody the characteristics of first ladies?

Zuma stands for simplicity and tradition and that's what his wives embody in their fashion sense.

Their look is dowdy, traditional and that is a casualty that can upset even the most lenient of fashion eyes.

Pheko says Zuma's former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini, is not a fashionista either. Though she often seems to make a greater impression by what she says than by what she wears, her West African dresses tend to be a bore.

But it's not just the women who have to make a fashion impression, male politicians have to dress to impress too.

While the men can get away with rotating a few good suits, ties and a couple of pairs of shoes, Mash believes that Nelson Mandela had set a very high standard and became something of a style icon.

Madiba certainly set the bar high with his famous Madiba shirts.

"Those shirts made their own political statement. He is also blessed with a beautiful personality. Mbeki played it safe with his black suits.

"His conservative suits gave him the appearance of power and capability, but his unkempt beard and grey hair were a bit of a problem. President Kgalema Motlanthe has tried a 'take-me-seriously' style with his suits, a very big transformation from his free-bee SACP T-shirts," says Mash.