Wearing a navy Thom Browne coat cut from custom-made jacquard and a coordinating dress, she was a more subdued, more reserved presence than in 2009. She had traded in the bright, idealistic sheen of the lemongrass Isabel Toledo ensemble for one that was structured, relatively spare and unadorned except for the black, bejeweled J. Crew belt she added after the morning’s prayer service.
And for the evening’s two inaugural balls, she chose a patriotic red chiffon and velvet gown that highlighted her shoulders with its spare neckline. It was created by Jason Wu, the same young New York-based designer she catapulted from near anonymity into a household name when he crafted her first inaugural gown.
It was a stately choice, thanks to its classic first lady hue. But it had sophisticated sex appeal and was a far cry from the idealistic sweetness exuded by Wu’s first gown, the ivory, embroidered dress now in the National Museum of American History.
In four years, her style had shifted from fizzy hope to glimmering grown-up pragmatism.
During the day, her clothes echoed her husband’s. The Thom Browne coat was created from tie silk and echoed his discreet blue neckwear. As expected, the president wore a sober black overcoat, dark suit and black gloves, with a tiny American flag pin dotting his lapel. Their daughters, Sasha and Malia, finished the family portrait wearing coats in shades of lilac and violet. The elegant silhouettes underscored their new maturity.
Still, the first lady’s clothes stand apart. Observers obsess about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe because it offers clues to the personality of a public woman — a historic woman — who remains a resolutely private person. In an era of televised confessionals, she has never laid herself bare. But thankfully, her clothes, with their quirks and eccentric embellishments, do not adhere to unwritten protocol or dowdy traditions that have so often left first ladies little more than beige cyphers.
For four years, Obama’s clothes have connected with the public in contemporary terms, in the language of Hollywood’s progressive glamour, Seventh Avenue’s bold entrepreneurship and the democracy of the mass market.