The Dictates of Fashion:

Madonna gives our would-be First Ladies a lesson in style

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Published October 30, 1996 9:44AM (EST)

Inspired by the glamorous South American queen bee she plays in "Evita," Madonna has launched a media blitz to beat the Versace pantsuits right off our own wannabe First Ladies this election season. Without even bothering to diss their lavender apparel,
she's thrown her cloche in the ring for the Grande Dame title.

While Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Dole dutifully spend their moments in the spotlight convincing us they represent American stateswomanliness, Madonna-as-Evita is the real First Lady to contend with  working
the covergirl electorate at Vanity Fair, Vogue, People and front pages nationwide. Decked out in faux Dior, she dominates the press without even resorting to the censorship whip cracked by the First Ladyship of her aspirations, Argentina's Eva Duarte Peron.

I'm as tired as the next glassy-eyed consumer of the "Evita" movie hype, but I was still curious about the appeal of Madonna's platform and I'm not talking about the one under her Prada shoe leather.
Casting aside the fearful and loathsome on-the-campaign-trail coverage of Hillary and Elizabeth, I reached for Julie Salamon's Vogue interview to catch Madonna's pro-Evita pitch. That made-for-Hollywood despot, deified by the poor who sanctified her handouts and demonized by the aristocracy whose fortunes went to quench her Cartier thirst, incited a brand of mudslinging
our Washington matrons can't match.
America's foremost powerblonde  no stranger to mudslinging herself  feels a kinship with the South American ice queen. Madonna admits that while campaigning for the movie role, she scribbled eight pages of impassioned beggary in a letter to director Alan Parker. I was dying to see how
 and why  she would rescue Evita from the bitchy version presented in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical.

Defending a vengeful witch who bankrupted a wealthy nation while stuffing her closets with haute couture couldn't be easy. But maybe those things aren't criminal in Madonna's eyes. What about Evita's blacklists and brutal tortures? And how would America's puritanical voters, appalled by extramarital kissyface, react to a gal who groped her way to the top?

Working the Peronist lobby like a true politico, Madonna evokes Evita in vague, romanticized terms, speaking abstractly of the struggles she and Evita shared as "women with success and power." (No need to remind us that Evita achieved Hillary's dream: she ruled Argentina without the tiresome formality of being elected to office.)

But Madonna's Evita apology is cut short to make way for all the Evita frou-frou #0151; the '40s suits, the chignon, the veiled hats. After all, fashion, as Jackie taught us, is what makes a First Lady.

I turned to Madonna's "personal diaries"  all 14 Vanity Fair pages. Unfortunately, they reveal little more than the bra strap President Carlos Menem ogled as Ms. Ciccone worked him over to get permission to shoot "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from a balcony at the
presidential palace. (Like the real Evita, her combination of feminine wiles and unconquerable will got her what she wanted. Perhaps, like the real Evita's, her diary was penned by a ghostwriter?)
Frustrated, I flipped through the freak show photos of Madonna in People, In Style, the Star, National Enquirer and Globe, only to find contraction-by-contraction accounts of her daughter's Caesarean birth.
Try as I might to understand why the holy mother of pop is so keen on getting a fair shake for her despotic idol, I found the Madonna diaries about as illuminating as a Bob Dole speech on why a huge tax cut suddenly makes sense. Read my painted lips: No new nastiness. When it comes to badmouthing Eva, "Just don't do it."

Dole's only hope was that Republicans would confuse him with Reagan or Bush. Does Madonna want to be confused with Evita? That First Lady did get an audience with the Pope, which Madonna would surely enjoy  but her European
tour was at Franco's invitation, saluting fascism. Evita married a pedophile dictator, was ostracized by those whose acceptance she craved, and had the life beaten out of her by uterine cancer at 33  not someone I'd like to trade places with ....

Yet Madonna confesses she dreamed of being Evita, felt the long-dead megalomaniac "enter my body like a heat missile" and anguished over how misunderstood Evita was.

I guess a candid explanation of this "misunderstanding" goes against the political grain. Madonna offers only a partial Evita, her unsightly Marie Antoinette aspects discreetly liposuctioned away. I know I shouldn't have expected more from the Material Girl, but after all her breast-beating insistence about "understanding," I had hoped.
Instead, there were only endless spreads of period costuming.
I admit I was baffled
 until Bloomingdale's announced the opening of its "Evita" boutiques featuring Mad Eva-inspired clothing, including a "coronation dress" for would-be queens. Estie Lauder has developed a special "Evita" cosmetics collection  for would-be sluts, would-be saints or just young dictators in the making?

The Disneyfication of the dictatress is hard to swallow, but it'll probably make the best-selling toys in babeland. Who wouldn't take a First Lady Barbie swathed in an ermine cape over one styling a suit? We're still slobbering over Jacqueline's pillbox and playing by her rules: First Ladies should be seen (in Chanel) and not heard (lobbying for health care). Let us now become an army of off-the-rack Evitas.

By sucking up photo ops and skirting issues, Madonna's given us the candidate we've been waiting for. Dripping with designers, Mad Eva not only has a ballot box advantage over the hopelessly unhip candidates' wives, but she's elicited enough free-advertising campaign contributions for the "Evita" box office to guarantee a big-budget inaugural wardrobe.

As usual, Madonna had it figured out all along. Her platform couldn't be simpler, or more appropriate for the times: Forget the dead bodies, may the coolest dress win.

Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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