Michelle Obama, first in fashion

New York Times News Service

Published: December 31, 2012 02:06PM
Updated: December 31, 2012 09:59AM
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U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle greet Chinese President Hu Jintao and his wife Liu Yongqing, left, before their dinner at the APEC Summit in Honolulu, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, Pool)

It’s a good bet that when Michelle Obama accompanies her husband to his inaugural next month, and later the round of balls, she will not be thinking of her critics or those White House aides who once fretted about the political fallout from her designer fashion. That’s because she has turned the seemingly frivolous into political capital of her own.

To be sure, her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and put healthy eating habits on the national agenda matter more than what she wears, and her legacy will be secure if she pushes for broader change. An impressive speaker, she is able to reach across all kinds of divides — race, age, income. Given this skill, many people, disappointed that her clothes get more attention than her values and leadership, hope that a second term will give her more latitude to speak out on issues that are more controversial, like educational reform and work-life balance.

But it’s a funny thing: Four years ago she denied conservatives the chance to vilify her as “an angry black woman” by taking immense pleasure in traditional first lady pursuits, like fashion, entertaining and gardening.

She did so on her terms and not as a latter-day Jackie Kennedy. Obama’s fashion choices were vibrant and eclectic, her parties were inclusive, and her garden served her diet-and-exercise mantra.

Writer Liza Mundy, who began working on a book about Michelle Obama during the 2008 primaries, recalled setting a Google alert on the prospective first lady.

“I would get stuff on her every day, all this fulminating,” Mundy said. “What struck me was that on the inauguration, every single Google alert was about what she was wearing that day. The conversation had completely changed.”

Over and over one sees how fashion has worked for Obama in a way that it seemed to baffle Hillary Rodham Clinton as first lady. Even Jackie Kennedy, for all her incredible poise (at age 31), regarded her White House wardrobe as a duty uniform; she referred to her chic suits and gowns as “state clothing.” Kennedy received stinging criticism for her expensive clothing and bouffant hair. Several months before the election, she sent fashion editor Diana Vreeland a 10-page letter requesting help “to solve an enormous problem which is clothes!”

The transformation of Michelle Obama from Chicago mom and lawyer, who favored slacks and cardigans and sheaths, into a dress-designer’s dream has been fascinating to watch, in part because it happened with very little pushback from the media. As Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, pointed out, Obama’s clothes have not become a political flash point the way that her healthy-eating campaign has.

“Oddly, fashion, which has tended to be treated with extreme suspicion in American history, has not caused political problems for her,” Steele said.

According to “The Obamas,” a book by Jodi Kantor, a reporter for The New York Times, once Michelle Obama “saw how she looked with top-flight clothes and styling, one friend said, there was no going back.”

Early on, the first lady made it clear to her advisers, Kantor noted, that her wardrobe choices were not to be questioned.

Sometime around the election, if not before, the first lady began working with Ikram Goldman, the owner of a Chicago boutique. Goldman served as intermediary with the designers who made her inaugural clothes: the Isabel Toledo yellow coat and dress, the Jason Wu white ballgown. The designers had no direct contact with the first lady. That became the practice even after Goldman was replaced by a wardrobe assistant on the first lady’s staff.

Here, again, Obama was clever. In contrast to her husband, who raised money for his re-election at a fundraiser given by Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, and Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Obama has kept the fashion industry at a distance. Unlike some of her predecessors, she did not wind up designating a few favorites to create a consistent image. In 2010, she wore clothes by more than 50 design firms, most at the high end. Perhaps she feared being exploited, but more likely, she recognized the traps of being associated with a materialistic industry.

Today, one can glean only non-nourishing tidbits from designers, who insist on speaking off the record to protect their business with her.

“She’s more confident now.”

“She owns her style.”

One designer, who doesn’t dress Obama, observed, with some accuracy, “Her clothes are too tight.”

Like an old-time political boss, Obama has spread her patronage around and enjoyed a reputation as a smart-looking woman who salts her wardrobe with less expensive pieces by J. Crew and Target. Arriving at the White House in the depths of the recession, she has been a boon to independent designers like Narciso Rodriguez, Prabal Gurung and Barbara Tfank, as well as European houses like Alexander McQueen, which produced the dramatic red dress she wore to the China state dinner.

An American designer who has made things for Obama explained that she has helped his business because saleswomen can now tell shoppers unfamiliar with his label, “Mrs. Obama wears his clothes.” That endorsement is worth millions. In a 2010 study of her economic impact, David Yermack, of the Stern School of Business at New York University, found that the average value to a company from an appearance by Obama was $14 million.

Even more astonishing is that Obama’s spending on clothes has attracted little scrutiny. Clearly that’s because she is seen as helping the U.S. economy. Still, she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on clothes and accessories. She was criticized for wearing $500-plus Lanvin sneakers at a food bank, in 2009. But at a time when economic inequality is a serious issue, you wonder why the first lady’s fashion spending hasn’t caused more fuss.

One clue was her decision, in late 2008, to accept an invitation to pose for the cover of Vogue. As Kantor wrote, her advisers were divided, with some concerned that Obama, a woman of substance, would be seen as a fashionista. She argued, “There are young black women across this country, and I want them to see a black woman on the cover of Vogue.” In the end, there was little criticism of the Vogue cover.

There is a modern element in Obama’s understanding of her role as first lady that has been taken for granted, and that is a culture obsessed by celebrity and style. How much was she aware of that in 2008? It’s hard to know. She was proud to relate to young people, but did she realize that fashion magazines like Vogue had ceased being elitist bastions and were embracing new role models: athletes, pop stars, celebrity designers?

In hindsight, her decision to shift from mom and busy professional to glamour figure was a brilliant one. It effectively protected her.

What has changed in her style as a new inaugural approaches? Not much, really. She has simplified her appearance: Gone are some of the kooky knits and too-tight hairdos. But she still loves prints, draped necklines, full skirts and, of course, bare arms. She probably never looked better than in the shimmering Naeem Khan column she wore for the India state dinner, although the Chinese-red McQueen is a close second.

Yet enough with glamour; many people want to know what’s on Michelle Obama’s mind. Writing in The Economist, back in 2009, Adrian Wooldridge, who is today the magazine’s managing editor, lamented that news stories about the first lady “were almost entirely devoted to fluff.” He wrote that the administration should unleash her: “She has a unique ability to act as an advertisement for the virtues of hard work and stable families.”

A few days ago, Wooldridge said, “I would be slightly less critical than I was when I wrote that article. Firstly, I more appreciate the difficulty of combining a political and a symbolic role, and, secondly, on one very important subject she has really made waves and spoken out and set a national example.”

Still, he hasn’t changed his view that the first lady can be a powerful voice on issues like equal opportunity and work-life balance, given her own background.

“The engines of the American dream and meritocracy have slowed down dramatically over the past 20 years,” he said. “She is a person who has lived through that, came from the South Side of Chicago, went to Princeton and Harvard. It ought to be something she’s addressing. And the more she dresses in glamorous clothes, the more it looks like she’s cut off from her roots.”

And, he said, the first lady cannot be preserved in aspic.

“I think if a first lady were purely decorative in the 21st century, it would actually look rather odd.”