Why Michelle Obama Is Not the Next Jackie O

"A new big O is ascending on the fashion scene," wrote Wendy Donahue in her style column for the Chicago Tribune less than a week after voters sent her hometown girl, Michelle Obama, to the White House with her husband. Like many fellow fashionistas, Donahue is rushing to cram Obama's 5-foot-11-inch frame into the mold left by her timeless predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The trouble, historians say, is that it's a lousy fit.

Obama's bold wardrobe choices have tapped into a yearning among style writers for the bygone days of Jackie's youthful elegance. The New York Post has already christened the Obama White House "Bamelot," playing on the Kennedys' "Camelot" mythology. But aside from youth, beauty and little kids running around—plus that prominent "O"—what exactly do the two have in common? Next to nothing. "There seems to be this moving train that simply insists that Mrs. Obama is the new Mrs. Kennedy," says Carl Anthony, historian for the National First Ladies' Library, who has been fielding calls from reporters eager to connect the dots. But Anthony thinks they're worlds apart.

Start with biography. Michelle Obama grew up working-class. Kennedy was a child of privilege, a skilled equestrian and avid foxhunter. Although both women had first-rate educations, Obama will be only the third First Lady with a master's degree, after Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. And while Jackie had to give up a promising writing career when she married the then Sen. John F. Kennedy, Michelle met her husband at the law firm where they both worked—and where he was her subordinate. Anthony says it's peculiar that journalists are "going back half a century" to find a comparison for Obama when Clinton seems more apt—and galling that Michelle could be known primarily for her attire, "as if she were a mannequin."

But even the fashion comparison falls short. Kennedy was the epitome of 1960s haute couture. Her style was aspirational, unattainable. Obama is more of a fashion populist. It's hard to imagine Kennedy, in her pillbox hat and leopard-skin coat, dishing about shopping at J.Crew.

Obama has pledged to focus on complex social issues, such as support for military families, once she gets to the White House. Still, most of her recent headlines have been about her clothes, such as the mixed reviews she drew for her election-night Narciso Rodriguez number. Historians say they hope it's a passing phase—that the public will eventually focus on Obama's serious contributions to the country instead of the fierce urgency of her fashion.