A Role That Nicely Suits the Next First Lady

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008

The election-night tableau of the Obama family onstage in Chicago's Grant Park was inspirational for all that it symbolized about how much has changed in American culture. This is the photograph that was blasted across the world and into the history books. It was as perfectly color-coordinated as a family Christmas card portrait.

President-elect Barack Obama walked onto the outdoor stage wearing one of his favorite Hart Schaffner Marx suits (made in Illinois) in an inky shade of navy. He paired it with a crisp white shirt and a ruby red tie interrupted with thin, diagonal gray stripes. His suit was almost the same color as the dress worn by his younger daughter, Sasha. And his tie paired up nicely with the cherry red dress worn by his daughter Malia. Michelle Obama completed the picture by wearing a red and black dress by New York-based designer Narciso Rodriguez.

This is not the first time that the Obamas have gone matchy-matchy for the family portrait. They did it at the Democratic convention, where their children also joined them onstage. The president-elect and his wife do not generally dress alike when it's just the two of them. That is a good thing, because to do so would convey an unsettling dynamic in the manner of couples who sit side-by-side at a table instead of across from each other or who refer to themselves as "Mother" and "Father."

It is understandably difficult to resist engaging in aesthetic coordination when one knows that the photographs are headed for the history books. But the McCains, Bidens and Palins all managed to do so. None of them gave the impression that much attention had been paid to who was wearing what color or whether patterns and hues would clash.

The Obama color coordination may have something to do with the ages of their girls, 7 and 10. At that age, children actually have a wardrobe and not just a closet filled with onesies. But they still are young enough to be dressed in the manner their parents deem appropriate.

But that kind of coordination also is a way of controlling the family image, of making sure that these four individuals are perceived as a seamless unit, a supportive clan. The color matching declares loudly: We are a family. We are in this together. And don't we take a nice picture?

Of all the members of the family, the eye lingers on Michelle Obama. As the next first lady, she will have no prescribed duties and responsibilities. Instead, she will step into the role of national symbol. She can support a cause and address certain issues. But the essence of a first lady's job is to cheerlead by her presence or to admonish by her absence. She is not required to look especially powerful or intellectual. She is our public face of graciousness, sophistication and nurture.

And, of course, we'd like her to look pretty.

So we obsess about her clothes, searching for clues to how individualistic she will be, how modern, how typically Washington? What are her thoughts on St. John knits? Mrs. Obama, please don't tell us you like them because they won't wrinkle. Pretty please? Don't.

Michelle Obama's election-night dress was black with a spray of red popcorn lace spreading out from the bustline to just below the hips. The waist was defined by crisscrossing bands in solid black. The effect accentuated an hourglass shape -- a skill at which Rodriguez excels. The dress is from the spring 2009 collection, which was shown on the runway in New York in September and which has not yet arrived in stores. But that doesn't really matter when you're the first lady-to-be.

Obama wore the dress with a waist-length black cardigan, which might have been wise on an autumn evening in Chicago. But it muddled the dress's dramatic silhouette and threw off the proportions and the sleek illusion created by the banding, the spraying and Rodriguez's expert cutting.

The runway version of the dress was sleeveless and with a lower cut neckline, details that made it sexier, more dramatic and somewhat dressier. So that cardigan spoke to decorum as much as it did warmth. Still, it was a fashion spoiler.

The unfortunate truth about a lot of runway fashion is that it often does not look as enticing in videos as it does in real life or even in still photographs. TV flattens textures. Details get lost in shadows. On television, it was hard to see much beyond the splash of red down the front of the dress, which made Obama look a bit like she'd just lost a grueling paintball battle. In photographs, the red centerpiece had the delicate texture of confetti. On the runway, the entire dress had an airy translucence.

But for anyone who believes that a first lady can speak volumes with her style or thinks that she ought to champion this country's garment business from the atelier to the mass marketer, Obama did both Tuesday night. She chose a daring dress by an American designer who is the son of Cuban immigrants. He is widely respected within the industry and is known for creating garments that flatter a woman's curves. He is not a household name even though he created one of the most famous wedding gowns in recent history: the bias cut silk dress worn by Carolyn Bessette in 1996 when she married John F. Kennedy Jr. Rodriguez's company is not a financial powerhouse; it is just the opposite.

Rodriguez said he was "proud and honored" that Obama chose his dress. But her choice has the potential to do more for the designer than simply give him bragging rights. And that's as it should be. For a first lady, clothing choices are more than flashes of personal expression. They serve as visual cheers for an industry that often feels beleaguered or dismissed, especially now, when people are cautious about discretionary spending.

The White House will have to solve the big problems, but it also must champion American culture, from literature to music to cuisine. The first lady is uniquely suited to celebrate its fashion industry. She is more substantial than a starlet and more pragmatic than a socialite. And with her proven attention to aesthetics -- and a few less cardigans -- her photographs can deliver an articulate and powerful message.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company