Michelle Obama is a woman of stunningly impressive accomplishments—degrees from Princeton and Harvard, a successful law career, two beautiful daughters. Plus there’s a husband about to become the world’s most powerful man who calls her “my rock.” Yet her most significant influence is as a fashion icon—in other words, a mannequin. In the space of one year, Mrs. Obama has catapulted onto every best-dressed list: in July, Vanity Fair dubbed her “commander in sheath,” a reference to her fondness for form-fitting dresses that show off her toned triceps. Fashion blogs, most prominently the obsessive mrs-o.org, monitor her every sartorial decision. Mere hours after the Obamas sat down with Barbara Walters in November, the world knew the future first lady had been wearing a US$3,510 ivory raw silk sheath with hand-embroidered ebony rosettes from the spring 2009 collection of the young American designer Jason Wu. Who she’ll wear to the inauguration is a topic of fevered discussion. Salon.com stoked the public ardour last month with “First lady got back,” an over-the-top piece celebrating Mrs. Obama’s booty. “There’s a definite hysteria,” says Mandi Norwood, who hopes to capitalize on the mania with her forthcoming book, Michelle Obama Style Guide, a primer on the wide belts, bold brooches, vivid colours, florals, flats and fake gumball pearls that are the future first lady’s fashion signatures.
Michelle Obama, no fool she, has figured out the powerful role clothing plays in telegraphing a political message. The fact she shows interest in fashion at all, beyond the safe society designers favoured by Washington matrons, reinforces Barack Obama’s cred as a Beltway outsider attuned to the public mood. True to the Obama message, Mrs. O’s style is more aspirational than material, and she’s Exhibit A: a black woman from Chicago’s South Side who’s not a size 2 fashion model dictating American style.
True, she comes to the stage with natural advantages. At a fit, statuesque five foot 11, Obama wears clothes well. At age 44, she has figured out what suits her body. She’s also the youngest first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy, with whom she’s frequently compared, in part due to the classic ladylike suits and pearls she donned during the campaign’s early days. Any invocation of the mythic era of Camelot, a conceit superimposed on JFK’s presidency by his widow, was purely intentional. As André Leon Talley, an editor-at-large for Vogue, gushed to the New York Times: “A black Camelot moment is the right moment for the Obamas. And so the faux pearls, the A-line dresses, and the Jackie Kennedy flip are obviously all part of how her image strategy has evolved.”
And strategic it has been, without the apparent aid of stylists. Yet there’s no way Michelle Obama is combing through look books from the 2009 collections herself. Talley is rumoured to have an influence, which he has diplomatically denied. The high-end Chicago boutique Ikram is a resource. Another is Chicago’s Maria Pinto, who designed the turquoise dress Obama wore for her speech at the Democratic convention. Obama began wearing Pinto’s sleek clothes in 2004, the year her husband veered onto the political radar after giving the keynote speech at the party’s national convention. There’s speculation that Oprah Winfrey, a Pinto fan, made the introduction, which would add another layer to the talk-show queen’s long-term support.
During the campaign, Michelle Obama’s clothing subtly reinforced her husband’s political message. Her penchant for the colour purple signalled, if only subconsciously, the melding of red and blue states. In keeping with the promise of “change,” she eschewed the fashion establishment, instead selecting up-and-coming American designers of diverse racial backgrounds, among them Thakoon Panichgul, Jason Wu and Peter Soronen. Her confident, conservative yet playful look was greeted as a new template for female power dressing, a real-life working-woman style that provided a fresh, welcome alternative to Hillary Clinton’s parade of pantsuits.
Consistent with the campaign’s call for inclusiveness, Obama’s clothing was accessible to the mainstream. Pieces from the Gap and H&M were alternated with high-end labels to create what Mary Tomer, the founder of mrs-o.org, calls “fashion democracy.” Though she often rocked $1,000 frocks, Obama sidestepped the charges of rich-bitch profligacy levelled at Cindy McCain, who favoured showy-luxe Escada and Carolina Herrera. Amidst the flap over Sarah Palin’s US$150,000 shopping spree, she scored political points appearing on The Tonight Show in a J. Crew outift that cost US$305.99.
The next day J. Crew’s online traffic spiked 64 per cent. While her husband busies himself keeping the American banking and auto industries afloat, the first lady may be keeping its fashion industry going. Already she’s an international contender: in Mrs. O, the Times of London recently opined, Carla Bruni, the ex-supermodel wife of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, has “met her match.”
That a black woman who doesn’t conform to the entrenched Halle Berry-Beyoncé-Mariah Carey aesthetic of black female beauty could vanquish a white supermodel as a fashion icon is a breakthrough, says Janette Robinson-Flint, the director of the Los Angeles-based advocacy group Black Women for Wellness. “She’s not an ‘ambiguous’ black woman,” she says of Obama. “When one looks at her one doesn’t see a person of mixed race. They don’t have to make a decision, ‘Is she black?’ They see a dark-skinned black woman from the South Side of Chicago.”
Traditionally, this image has been threatening, says Robinson-Flint, pointing to the purportedly ironic depiction of Michelle Obama as an angry Angela Davis-style radical with an Afro and a gun on the cover of The New Yorker. As the daughter of two working-class African-American parents, Obama symbolizes the lineage of U.S. black history in the U.S. in a way her husband doesn’t, says Robinson-Flint: “African-Americans have been brutalized by racism in this country and that is something that Barack Obama [whose mother was white] does not carry as much as Michelle does.”
When Michelle Obama commands the cover of Vogue’s March issue, as is rumoured, she’ll be only one of slightly more than a dozen African-American women to have done so. Fashion remains an industry of racial stereotyping and exclusion. Zoe Whitley, a visiting lecturer at Sussex University who recently wrote her M.A. thesis about the representation of black models in Vogue, found repeated use of tribal and exotic tropes—models in animal prints or photographed crawling and leaping in the air.
Within the African-American community, Michelle Obama’s fit, pear-shaped body is itself viewed as a political weapon of change. In the salon.com article, Erin Aubry Kaplan writes: “I’m a black woman who never thought I’d see a powerful, beautiful female with a body like mine in the White House,” adding: “Try as Michelle might to cover it with those Mamie Eisenhower skirts and sheath dresses meant to reassure mainstream voters, the butt would not be denied.”
But to reassure those mainstream voters, Kaplan complained, the Obamas sublimated their black heritage: “Michelle’s ethnic butt might have snuck under the radar, but an ethnic do wouldn’t have stood a chance.” Danielle Belton, whose Black Snob blog tracks Mrs. Obama’s clothing, believes her ethnicity is more subtly conveyed in her choice of bright colours: “African-Americans love colour when it comes to fashion.”
Obama’s bold choices have occasionally misfired. The red-and-black Narciso Rodriguez dress she wore on election night to anchor a carefully colour-coordinated family tableaux, for example, received more criticism than any of her husband’s cabinet picks. Slate.com issued a finger wag: “Mrs. Obama, black with red is too jarring a color combination for a first lady. It’s too dramatic.”
Unbowed, Obama chose a variation on Nancy Reagan’s favourite hue when she made a post-election visit to the White House with her husband in November. Her coral Maria Pinto dress eclipsed Laura Bush’s mousy brown outfit in every photo. The optics were clear: hold on, America, a more vibrant administration is coming. The subtext was stealthier: I’m the next first lady. I’m definitely not Nancy Reagan. And you’re going to stop and pay attention.