Obama has celebrated a distinctly contemporary version of American style — a sensibility rooted in comfort and practicality, wholly removed from the Old World formality that still percolates within French fashion and apart from the flashy sex appeal and bella figura tailoring that are the twin pillars of Italian aesthetics.
In her embrace of fashion, Obama does not ask designers to adapt their sensibilities to her own desires. Instead, she — or her emissary — encourages their best efforts and, most often, they rise to the occasion. Reed Krakoff created the custom-made, ultramarine silk day dress and cashmere cardigan she wore to the private swearing-in Sunday. Crafted in Krakoff’s New York atelier, the ensemble acknowledged the first lady’s affection for a cardigan and an easy dress, but it was also an accurate reflection of the American designer’s sportswear roots.
Browne’s aesthetic is also born of American tradition, inspired by Ivy League tailoring, button-down shirts and varsity-letter cardigans. Browne made his reputation in menswear, launching his brand in 2001 with his shrunken, schoolboy suits. He’s a designer whose small business — and multiple side projects — speaks to the struggle and tenacity required to succeed in the fashion industry. Last year, Browne received a Cooper-Hewitt Design Award for his fashion and was feted at the White House, along with other winners, by the first lady.
Obama’s ability to bring a significant financial windfall to the many mass-market labels she wears has been documented by a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She is the first East Wing occupant to wield such economic clout in part because she lives in an age when a single image can be tweeted around the world.
Obama is a fashion icon — for all of the attention, discomfort and power that phrase might suggest. But she has been dogged by skepticism and disappointment that her work has not been substantive, that it has not been worthy of her educational pedigree. The fascination with her clothes has only fueled that debate.
But is substance being confused with controversy? Obama did not dive into the roiling seas of health-care reform as former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton did. But is tackling a pathology that threatens the life expectancy of generations of children any less significant?
Whether Obama will add a fourth or fifth item to her list of priorities is under discussion among her staff. “The first lady is exploring ways that she can make a real difference for Americans,” said Kristina Schake, Obama’s communications director, “not just for these next four years, but for years to come.”
Make no mistake; Obama would be loath to declare her interest in fashion a “priority.” And it is hard to imagine that she would willingly become the face of a campaign promoting this country’s $350 billion fashion industry. But style is a tool African American media use for pushing back against generations of stereotypes about black women.
As Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, noted, admiring words about the glossy images of a first-lady-lawyer-mother have become a near mantra in her home — repeated not to daughters, but to sons. Style is dignity, self-respect and confidence.
While Obama did not invent the sleeveless sheath, she gave it distinctive verve by pairing it with lean, sculpted arms. Those arms, which powered her through celebrity push-up competitions and surely must have hugged a million White House visitors, set her apart from the generation of women who preceded her into the White House. Obama revels in her athleticism, her physical fitness. Style is a synonym for health and vigor.
Indeed, Obama has done more than any other contemporary figure to normalize fashion — to move it from an outlier industry of flamboyant personalities and indecipherable verbiage to one that is discussed in the public domain with the same respectful tone applied to technology, architecture or even sports.
There is still a long way to go, of course. Cheating sports stars conjure up congressional hearings and require an interrogation by Oprah, while the fashion industry struggles to get limited trademark protections for its most unique designs. Professional women still feign fashion ineptitude as a sign of their workday gravitas.
But by giving style a prominent place in her public life, even when standing silently on a cold January day, Obama remains both eloquent and significant.
Givhan is a freelance writer.