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.”
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