Their meeting on Friday, at the Palais Rohan in Strasbourg, France, was not quite that. Indeed, Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Sarkozy looked remarkably similar, suggesting that both women know fashion — and themselves — pretty well. Each wore a coat with a soft bow at the neck and low-heeled shoes. Mrs. Sarkozy’s gray lambskin coat was a Dior, while Mrs. Obama’s Jacquard silk coat was by the American designer Thakoon Panichgul, as was her short-sleeved fuchsia dress.
Considering that both women have been compared to Jacqueline Kennedy, and that Mrs. Sarkozy is a pop singer and former model, people might have been surprised by the dull sobriety of Mrs. Sarkozy’s outfit. But in the year since her marriage to President Nicolas Sarkozy, the French first lady has proved to be far more refined in her look than trendy.
She chooses clothes with a relatively clean silhouette, like the Dior coat, or a black velvet Azzedine Alaïa gown she wore last week, or a navy Yves Saint Laurent dress she wore to an AIDS benefit in Paris in January. When she met Queen Elizabeth II last year, Mrs. Sarkozy was dressed top-to-toe in Dior, but in a way it was almost a costume of prim first lady elegance, and she has since toned that down and injected more, it seems, of herself.
Despite their vast differences in background, that is a quality the two first ladies have in common.
In terms of her appearance, Mrs. Obama seems to have exerted herself far more for the Group of 20 summit gathering and the NATO meeting than she did for the inauguration, perhaps because the stage is, in effect, bigger.
Beginning with her mid-Atlantic outfit change on Tuesday, when she stepped off Air Force One in Essex, England, in a yellow Jason Wu dress, her wardrobe has been subjected to intense media scrutiny. She had a new hairdo, drawn back at the sides, and what appeared to be expertly applied makeup. The choice of a soft Isabel Toledo skirt to wear to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday — in contrast to one of her businesslike pencil shapes — suggested a calculated plan to look relaxed and feminine next to the queen, who was in pink with her handbag looped over her arm.
The next day, Mrs. Obama wore a teal blue Jason Wu dress with a kooky cardigan by the Japanese avant-garde designer Junya Watanabe. She took some hits on blogs for that outfit. But if you were to put Mrs. Obama’s image that day next to those of the other leaders’ wives, whose clothes were uniformly straight in line, you would see someone who looked contemporary and inviting — not a drab cardboard cutout.
In France, Mrs. Obama has shown a bit more flair and moxie with her choice of the ultra-fitted Thakoon dress, her hair again loose and soft. She is in France, after all, land of haute couture.
The meeting between Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Sarkozy may not have been the showdown that fashion bloggers expected, but the American first lady has received the kind of coverage typically reserved for, well, supermodels. At times it has been gushy. The Web site for L’Express in Paris ran an article titled “The Ten Commandments of Michelle Obama’s Style.” The first commandment was: “Color you will wear in excess. Soft or bright, Michelle knows that nothing suits her better ... at the risk of other women’s seeming very bland beside her.”
On a blog on L’Express, one post said that maybe she was being