Blame Jackie O. Ever since JFK’s inauguration in January 1961, the occupational hazards attached to the role of first lady have automatically included being a fashion icon and stylish figurehead for the country. No matter how brilliant the mind and professional credentials of ‘the Flotus’ may be, the whole world, it seems, is more concerned with scrutinizing her wardrobe, both in terms of trends and tactics.
Since her husband‘s election as president in 2009, Michelle Obama has appeared on the cover of Vogue twice (notably sporting a bold new blunt fringe for her most recent issue, in April 2013). She ranked sixth in Vanity Fair’s top 10 best-dressed first ladies of the world and was thrown in at the deep end during her first term, the international press swiftly pitting her against the blushing bride of France’s then-president, former supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
“They have both put the glamour back into politics and, on Friday, the world’s two leading first ladies, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Michelle Obama, came face to face for the first time,” reported The Daily Telegraph, which referred to their first meeting (in 2009 in Strasbourg) as “one of the most keenly awaited encounters on the diplomatic circuit.” Amy Odell, in her coverage for New York Magazine’s blog The Cut, high-fived Obama for being a “total fashion wild card” next to the “predictable (Dior, Dior, and oh – Dior again!)” Bruni-Sarkozy.
There was nothing particularly zany about Obama’s outfit: a slightly mumsy poppy-print black silk coat by Thakoon over a matching black-and-magenta dress. With a wardrobe centred on summery, ’50s-style printed tea dresses, pencil skirts, kitten heels, belted cardigans, practical trousers or sleeveless cocktail dresses to showcase her famously -toned arms, this look was classic and feminine. Instead, Odell’s ‘wild-card’ comment referred to Obama’s penchant for supporting emerging and niche designers of diverse origins, such as New York-based Taiwanese-Canadian Jason Wu, Thai-American Thakoon Panichgul and Cuban-American Isabel Toledo.
It’s a direction that has rankled certain fashion observers. “Where in the world are Donna [Karan], Ralph [Lauren] and Calvin [Klein]? Certainly not on the spousal circuit at the G20 summit in London,” sniped Bridget Foley of Women’s Wear Daily in an April 2009 article entitled Dressing Michelle: Major designers wait for first lady’s call. “Save for a recent digression to Michael Kors, Obama continues to show zero interest in the big guns of American fashion, those whose names resonate around the world, and who collectively employ thousands of people,” continued Foley. “Like the auto and financial industries, fashion is in crisis. Yet the person in the administration best positioned to support its major players – those whose collective vicissitudes play into the economy in a considerable way and whose individual swings of fortune impact the lives of countless working people up and down the supply chain and their families – is giving them the cold shoulder.”
Yet just a month later she was hailed in a 2009 Time feature entitled Can Michelle Obama save fashion retailing? as a “one-woman stimulus package for the suffering fashion retail industry”, based on her sporting a sparkly $298 hand-beaded cream J Crew cardigan on a visit to a London cancer centre with Sarah Brown, wife of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. According to the report, the garment sold out online that same day and, within hours, was being auctioned on eBay for twice the retail price. Newsweek labelled her a “fashion populist”. Her support of US high-street retailers (like J Crew, Target and Banana Republic), as a woman who likes to mix and match accessible and designer labels, has seen her championed as a thoroughly modern, recession-conscious first lady.
As a fan of comfort, Obama certainly loves a good woolie, including an Azzedine Alaia cardigan she wore for a private audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2009. “You don’t... go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater”, sniffed US designer Oscar de la Renta. The pragmatic Mrs Obama defended the move in an interview with Vogue, saying, “I was cold. I need that sweater!” Ironically, a silver embroidered cap-sleeve jacket by J Mendel she wore to a Buckingham Palace do three years later prompted further criticism for its flamboyant price tag: $6,800. “The jacket cost more than the average American family makes in a month!” scoffed The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft.
But Obama, who turns 50 on 17 January, is not easily swayed. Ignoring columnists’ comments, she remains loyal to a small group of designers who appeal not only to her sense of style – with their feminine cuts, strong prints and colours – but also to her political motivations. The most powerful single example of this ethos is the white gown designed by Jason Wu (then a little-known designer) that she wore for her husband’s first inauguration. Much more than simply slipping into a pretty dress, her aim in selecting that gown on that night was to deliver a message to onlookers from all walks of life: that they, too, can live the American Dream. “Thank you, Jason. Thank you for your vision and for your hard work, because, at the end of the day, today is about much more than this gown,” said Mrs Obama, in a speech at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in March 2010, when – as is tradition – her inauguration dress was added to its collection.
“With enough focus and with enough determination, someone in this room could be the next Jason Wu. Someone in this room could be the next Barack Obama... The American story is written by real people, not just names on a page. And it’s about how something you create today – whether it’s a dress, or a painting, or a story or a song – can help teach the next generation in a way that nothing else can.” (She faithfully wore Wu again, at her husband’s re-inauguration a year ago; “Wouldn’t it have been nice for the First Lady to select another, lesser-known American designer to wear on the big night?” griped The Daily Beast.) But as a mark of the dress’s iconic nature, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington has decided to put this second inaugural gown on display – for the first time in history.
As somebody who is equally at ease in a t-shirt and AG Adriano Goldschmied jeans while doing a spot of pumpkin-harvesting in the White House kitchen garden, as she is in a glamorous ball gown, Mrs Obama has the looks, athletic physique and polish to stylishly stand her ground in any environment. Yet she’s also equipped with a practical approach to dressing that suggests she has her priorities firmly in place. Sure, she gets up around 5am to workout every day, but she doesn’t skimp on freedom fries. She champions the Let’s Move campaign to tackle childhood obesity, but she doesn’t count calories. She was famously sedate in black lace at Nelson Mandela’s recent memorial service, as her husband posed for a ‘selfie’ with UK and Danish leaders David Cameron and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but she’s also unafraid to flex her muscles alongside Sesame Street’s Elmo and Rosita in a colour-blocked sleeveless pink shift dress.
Michelle Obama knows she has far more important issues to attend to than dressing to impress but, equally, that her wardrobe ably underlines whether she means business, pleasure or education. Style supports her substance – never the other way around.