July 4, 2007— -- When Argentina's foxy first lady and fashionista Cristina Kirchner announced July 2 that she would run for president, she allowed her long, black hair to cascade over a plunging neckline.
But America's first lady of politics, Hillary Rodham Clinton — who has often been compared to Kirchner — opted for a solid black pants suit during her recent presidential debate.
Other international women with brains and power, such as France's Ségolène Royal, flaunt their sexuality. But Americans prefer to play the dowdy card.
In a pragmatic nation with Puritan roots, "no nonsense" and "professional" get more votes than "sexy," say experts in both fashion and politics.
"In countries like Italy and France, the attitude is that they are leading the country and are supposed to be wearing fashionable clothes," said Valerie Steele, director and curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
But in the United States, "women are not supposed to be flaunting their sexuality, or be too flashy or sexy," she said. "It's expensive and time-consuming."
Clinton, who has relied on designer Oscar de la Renta since her White House days, has raised the retro pants suit to high art. One bright yellow version made a big fashion splash on this side of the Atlantic, with fashion writers describing it as "bright," "refreshed," "summery," "glamorous."
But not sexy.
A 54-year-old lawyer, Kirchner has been called "Imelda" — a reference to the shoe-mongering Filipino dictator's wife Imelda Marcos — for her vast collection of footwear.
In a YouTube cartoon, Kirchner is shown switching outfits from bikini to dominatrix get-up. Kirchner may have a shoe for every day of the year, but she is no intellectual lightweight. A sitting senator who has served in both legislative houses, she is President Néstor Kirchner's closest adviser.
And her hunger for designer fashion probably won't hurt her at the ballot box. The latest polls show she is likely to win the first round of balloting with 46 percent support and a more than 30 percentage point lead over two other leading presidential contenders, according to Britain's Independent.
Kirchner's closest rival is Elisa Carrió, a former beauty queen.
France's Ségolène Royal, with her common law husband and sexy looks, did not win the recent French presidential election, but it wasn't because of her lack of fashion sense.
Even the pope wears Prada, according to Joyce Caruso Corrigan, editor at large at Marie Claire magazine. "They think it's their birthright," she said. "The Europeans and Latin Americans just have 'sexy' in their DNA. Americans are sort of no-nonsense."
Since the time of the revolution, Americans have disdained "peacocks," said Corrigan.
Sarah Livingston Jay, wife of the first Supreme Court justice John Jay, was the first prominent American woman to go to Paris. "She was with Marie Antoinette, and dressed the part, swathed in the silk of the Parisian court," said Corrigan. "She got a lot of slack for it."
Later, former first ladies Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison turned to the "plain cloth that reflected our revolutionary values," according to Corrigan. "We've never shaken that."
All politicians make conscious fashion choices, including the frumpy Laura Bush and her mother-in-law and former first lady Barbara Bush, for whom "mumsy" is the word. But Clinton chooses the professional look.
"Hillary looks better than ever," said Corrigan. "She's not going to lose her Democratic base by going too high fashion. She doesn't have the body type for Kate Moss' clothes."
Steele said America's no-nonsense approach was solidified in the mid-19th century when the naturalist Henry David Thoreau warned, "Beware of occasions that require new clothes."
"In a democracy, you have simple clothes," said Steele. "There is a sense that fashion is false and deceitful. But in countries like France and Italy, there is a historical feeling that you dress to present your best to the world like a mask, best foot forward. In the American heritage, clothing should be like a mirror instead of a mask, and should reflect the self. You shouldn't be any better than you really are."
Just this spring it was revealed that presidential candidate John Edwards had paid $400 for a haircut. Voters were outraged. But in France, the wife of President Nicolas Sarkozy was praised for wearing Prada to his inaugural.
What if Hillary were to sex up her look? Politicians have to play it safe, like lawyers," said Steele. "They are in front of a jury that's judging you."
Americans have always been uptight about sexuality, according to Judy Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist from Columbia University. When CNN promoted its new "American Morning" anchor Paula Zahn in 2002 as "sexy" paired with the sound of a "needle pulled off the record," the network received so much criticism it pulled the ad.
Kuriansky just returned from a trip to Buenos Aires and watched all the fanfare surrounding Kirchner's campaign — and the Latino sex appeal.
"People are always looking at what everyone wears," said Kuriansky. "In Catholic countries, where you would expect something more conservative and repressive, but you look at the beaches in Rio, and you know it's not the case. There is a real diversity and acceptance that is very different from certain pockets of our own country that have pervaded and invaded our mores."
But Kuriansky understands that what garners votes in Latin America doesn't work here.
The uniform for success means looking like a woman but not "over-feminizing," said Kuriansky. "If your clothes are too-tight fitting, exposing your body, it's inappropriate."
Never wear pale colors because they are associated with weakness. Pearls mean a woman has a certain amount of money: "She's feminine, but not too feminine," said Kuriansky. "Jewelry shouldn't be too gaudy."
"Women are always judged on their appearance," said Sterling-Golden, president of the Women's Campaign School at Yale University, which trains women for political life. "They go after Katie Couric but no one cares about Charlie Gibson's tie."
"You look at women in banking and it's pretty much the standard suit," said Sterling-Golden. "Serious colors don't distract from the face, and people remember what you are saying. Nothing should distract from the message. You don't want that man across the board saying, 'Wow, that's a great sweater, but a great project."
Still, in parts of the world like Kirchner's Argentina, that message flies in the face of good taste.
During a special shoe exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology recently, a Brazilian writer approached a Birkenstock display in her highest high heels. "No Latin American would wear shoes like that," she shrieked. "Even if they are comfortable."