05/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

First Ladies: The Hottest Public Figures of Our Time

When Carla Bruni Sarkozy, 42, made the decision last week to slip into her dress for the state dinner at the Elysée Palace honoring the Russian president Dimitri Medvedev without donning a bra, she may have simply been making a sartorial statement. The French First Lady, who looks good in just about anything, chose a sculptural, peacock-green floor-length gown so form-fitting that the outline of her unrestrained bosom was clearly visible.

Although she may not have intended it as such, this was more than a mere fashion choice, this was a declaration of independence -- not so much for French womanhood, but for the notion of what a first lady is supposed to look like. In the United States, Michele Obama has already subverted the fusty stereotype; now comes Bruni to take another radical step.

And it's long overdue. How refreshing to see first ladies who are regular women: Michelle Obama wearing madras shorts and no make-up to walk her dog. Or with a glamorous new haircut openly flirting with her clearly enchanted husband as she kicks off International Women's Day in the East Room of the White House. Carla Bruni wearing all black and strumming a guitar performing live at Radio City Music Hall (she's also a successful recording artist) to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday. Or wearing jeans and ballerina flats to visit a hospital in Marseille, France.

These flesh and blood moments represent something new in the political sphere: The first lady who is no mere component of spousal support or secondary symbol of a nation. She is her own woman first and the country's first lady second. And as a woman she can freely exercise her prerogative to wear what best suits her mood and the situation -- whether it be a belted J.Crew cardigan or a Roland Mouret gown with no bra. She can be traditional or casual or even a bit sexy if she so chooses.

As for Bruni's choice, the French press looked on in bemused detachment while the English press - apparently scandalized by this brazen display of femininity -- went atwitter, weighing in on the necessariness and propriety of women's foundation garments.

"Ooh la la, where's her bra?" asked the Sun.

Writing in the Times of London, Hannah Betts saw a grand theme:

"Moreover, when Carla brandishes her bosom, she is merely the latest in an august line of Gallic consorts who have proffered their breasts to suggest physical and political prowess. Most prominent were the orb-bosomed Agnés Sorel, paramour to Charles VII; Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, who fashioned his goblet on her breast; and erect-nippled Gabrielle d'Estrées, the distraction of Henri IV. Like the third Mrs. Sarko, all revealed their embonpoint as a means of signaling youthfulness and a provocatively literal grip on power."

Bruni, a former fashion model, was once famously photographed in the altogether, her demurely crossed hands the only things between the photographer's lens and her modesty. The image sold at Christie's auction house in New York for $91,000. (The French, again, did not blink.)

In stark contrast, Michelle Obama was widely criticized for wearing a sleeveless dress and pearls to sit for her first official photograph as first lady. At the time, the criticism went thus: it was winter, and sleeveless therefore seemed out of place.

Fast forward a few months later: Americans collectively reached for the smelling salts when Mrs. Obama descended the steps of Air Force One one sweltering weekend in mid August to accompany her husband and children on a family vacation to hike the Grand Canyon wearing mid-thigh shorts. This time even though her outfit was season-appropriate and occasion appropriate, Mrs. Obama was again criticized -- this time for being too casual.

Both women are stepping out of the traditional mold of their predecessors to carve out a new image of first lady as a vibrant individual who does not hide the fact that she has a life outside of her role as public figure, shaping the office to fit her life rather than the other way around.

Carla Bruni, posing in her evening gown sans bra, was stunning and appeared completely comfortable in her own skin. Perhaps the new notion of what a first lady is supposed to look like is simple: a first lady is supposed to look like herself.

In other words, her public figure is entirely her own.