For a century and a half, fashion designers have deliberately set out to produce multiple copies of the same dress. While they also create one-of-a-kind pieces for special occasions or runway publicity, the business model pioneered by Charles Worth still obtains. Designers propose a series of looks each season, and then produce either made-to-measure copies for couture clients or standardized copies for the ready-to-wear industry.
Despite the reality of mass production, however, we still consider it a faux pas for two women to attend the same event wearing the same outfit. Never mind four.
At Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors reception in Washington, First Lady Laura Bush and three other women showed up wearing the same red Oscar de la Renta -- which Laura also chose for her official holiday photo. Laura apparently slipped away to change into another outfit, but not before CBS cameras captured the clones on film:
Of course, it's wholly unremarkable that the President and most every other man in attendance were presumably wearing near-identical costumes. Sartorial self-expression in the modern era is not only for the most part the domain of women, but a social requirement. Men are stereotyped as intellectual, women emotional; men defined by their minds, women by their bodies; men serious, women frivolous; men relatively unconcerned with fashion, women ... lucky.
No, really. How boring is it to be expected to show up in the same dark suit for business or tuxedo for formal occasions day after day, year in and year out, with only the occasional flashy necktie to break the monotony? Men outside the mainstream -- gay men or entertainers, for example -- have a bit more leeway to make stylish statements with their attire. Nearly all women, on the other hand, have a whole range of colors, silhouettes, patterns, and styles in which to dress themselves while still remaining appropriately attired. Freedom of choice and the expectation that it will be exercised can be a burden, but on the whole it's a wonderful opportunity.
So perhaps the most immediate question is not why it's embarassing for women to turn up dressed alike, or why we maintain the fiction of uniqueness in the face of mass-market fashion, although both of these issues are fascinating. Instead, we might ask what social forces caused four affluent women with access to the vast resources of the fashion world to choose the same rather matronly, $8,500 ensemble.
Maybe they all just liked the outfit. Or maybe the groupthink endemic to the executive branch has made its way into the wardrobes of its First, second, third, and fourth ladies as well.