Obama seems to have settled comfortably into her pop-culture status as a fashion icon, having boldly indulged in such who-the-heck-are-they designers as Thom Browne and Bibhu Mohapatra. With the aid of celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz and a village of stylists led by Vogue fashion editor Tonne Goodman, there was a near guarantee of a flattering image for the historical record. Vogue magazine boasts a circulation of some 1.2 million readers. It is not the political press.
And Anna Wintour, the magazine’s influential editor, was one of President Obama’s most tireless fundraisers during the last campaign.
The White House says Michelle Obama was merely following in the footsteps of other first ladies who interviewed with the magazine and continuing her own tradition of speaking to media outlets, whether it’s the AARP magazine or “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
Vogue “is such a fascinating institution,” says Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote the accompanying story, for which he interviewed both the first lady and the president. “It’s always had this strain of politics in it. But Vogue likes to like people. And I like to like people when I write about them. There’s a certain comfort level with the environment. And there’s something very ceremonious about Vogue and a Vogue shoot.”
Van Meter, who says he began angling for the interview more than three years ago, sat down with the first couple for 40 minutes in January, during which they discussed parenting, staying grounded, constituent impatience, political urgency and, of course, style: his lack of it, the attention paid to hers.
“If you’re comfortable in your clothes it’s easy to connect with people and make them feel comfortable as well,” the first lady told Van Meter.
Michelle Obama’s debut appearance on the Vogue cover in March 2009 was indeed an East Wing rite of passage going back at least to Mamie Eisenhower. Being photographed for the magazine is one of the few remaining bipartisan gestures. For that portrait, she sat curled on a sofa with her long, toned arms lightly wrapped one over the other in a protective gesture.
The April 2013 cover shows her in a more open, more assertive stance. She leans against a table and looks directly into the camera’s lens with her bare arms — still lean, perhaps a bit more toned — resting at her side. She’s wardrobed from her own closet in a Reed Krakoff sheath in cerulean blue with a flourish of purple at the neckline. She wears the same look in the photograph inside with the president, who’s dressed in a pinstriped shirt and a blue — but not matchy-matchy — tie.
Finally, another photograph captures her in a traditional, pensive White House pose, in profile wearing a black slim-fitting Michael Kors sweater and ball skirt. It’s a look that harks back to the sporty elegance favored by Vogue favorites such as socialites C.Z. Guest and Babe Paley. It firmly places Obama in the world of “classic” beauties — a place that had once been off-limits to women of color.
Obama has appeared on the covers of countless magazines, from Essence to Ladies’ Home Journal, but the Vogue cover — with its enduring legacy of high fashion, high society and an obsession with a particular kind of gilded beauty that drives size-14, short, brown or round women to distraction — holds a different place.
“When you’re on the cover of Vogue, it means that your personal imagery has power, not only your career realm or your political realm,” says Constance C.R. White, author of “Style Noir” and former editor in chief of Essence.
“Fashion has become more powerful,” she says. “Style can be used as a powerful tool, and any number of powerful women wield their power through incredible style.” She points to finance executive Mellody Hobson and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer as examples.
Vogue’s increasing ability to corral female power brokers suggests that the conventional wisdom is becoming obsolete. Women who are viewed through the lens of fashion are not doomed to be declared frivolous.
“It gives these women a chance to be three-dimensional,” says Dee Dee Myers, former Clinton White House press secretary and now a political analyst. “Can you be powerful and feminine? Can you be authoritative and beautiful? The answer is yes.”
In an era when social media has made image management part of the daily life of anyone on Facebook or Twitter, few entities are more adept at old-school image-making than Vogue. “It’s all part of the tool kit, now,” says Myers, who had her own Vogue moment when she first stepped behind the lectern in the White House briefing room in 1993.
When first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on the cover of Vogue in December 1998, in the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she wore a garnet Oscar de la Renta velvet ball gown — not a career woman’s pantsuit, not a stuffy Washington luncheon suit. The image was studiously regal and dignified, presenting Clinton with her head held high and existing above the pity, anger and recriminations.
“It foreshadowed the Hillary we’ve come to know, who she has become in the public consciousness, this formidable figure,” Myers says.
As Michelle Obama enters her fifth year in the White House, her image has shifted from that of an African American woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, to an assertive lawyer and career woman, to a non-threatening mom-in-chief harvesting sweet potatoes, to a kind of glamorous hybrid who — based on approval ratings hovering around 70 percent — both inspires and reassures.
Style has been inexorably related to this evolution and her ability to command attention.
“She’s become very savvy about her image and using it to further her husband’s goals,” White says. “Now she’s a fashion icon. She’s willing to play all those cards.”