Fashion Icon Michelle Obama Puts Spotlight on Chicago's 'Fresh' Conservatism

Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan says that Midwestern propriety, the city's history and the weather have shaped the fashion sense of the Windy City's residents.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009


Popular culture has defined Chicago as the big city that is not New York -- urban, energetic, and filled with bold architecture but lacking all those Big Apple neuroses. It has served as a training ground for our national jesters: "Saturday Night Live" cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey. In the '70s, Chicago was "Good Times" and "Mahogany." In the '80s, it was "Risky Business" and John Hughes movies. And for generations to come, the city will celebrate Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey.

But in the popular consciousness, Chicago has never been about fashion. Until now. When Michelle Obama stepped into the spotlight with her Maria Pinto sheaths, style suddenly became one of this city's high-profile exports.

The new first lady, a Chicago native, has been crowned a fashion icon by designers, magazine editors and no small number of bloggers whose posts range from sweetly fawning to so obsessive they might have been typed from a dim basement room plastered with yellowed news clippings. Her fashion status began shifting upward in fall 2007 when she was photographed in Vogue. By summer 2008, when she wore a purple sleeveless Maria Pinto dress and an Azzedine Alaia belt and fist-bumped her husband onstage in Denver, her style became central to the public's relationship with her.

Her signature look is characterized by those minimalist dresses, statement jewelry, bare legs and toned arms. She smoothly shifts from designer dresses priced at more than $1,000 to mass market brands such as the Gap and H&M. She shops Chicago's exclusive North Rush Street, and she browses the Internet.

She helped a $148 Donna Ricco sundress sell out because she wore it -- and talked about it -- on "The View" in June 2008. After she wore J. Crew on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in October and discussed her online shopping habits, the company updated its Web site so customers could type "Michelle Obama" into the search engine to pull up her ensemble under the headline: "All politics aside . . . this outfit gets our vote."

Obama's fashion choices will be a shorthand for the style of this White House. The Kennedy White House exuded an East Coast aristocratic style embodied by Jackie Kennedy's European-influenced wardrobe mixed with preppy simplicity. The Reagans swept into the nation's capital full of Hollywood panache and glamour. Nancy Reagan brought along James Galanos and his couture sensibility. And while Laura Bush did not become famous for cowboy boots and Western hats, Texas style was celebrated during two inaugurations and many visits to the Crawford ranch.

So what is Chicago style beyond big coats, warm boots and long, flat vowels? Does it even exist?

The Milan of the Midwest

It's hard to distill a region's fashion sensibility into 25 words or less. But for recent administrations, there at least has been a vocabulary of cliches that could be debated and dissected. California is informal. The East Coat is tweedy. Texas is boots, hats and belt buckles. True or false? Talk amongst yourselves.

Chicago style may be akin to a Midwestern news anchor accent. It usually goes unnoticed. It is the standard by which everything else is judged either as good or bad.

At least one thing is certain: Geography shapes Chicago style as surely as it affects the way Californians dress. Lisbeth Levine, a tall redhead with an Ivory girl complexion, grew up in the New York suburbs, but for the past 20 years has lived in Chicago. For five of them, beginning in the late 1980s, she was the Chicago Sun-Times fashion editor.

"It was the Armani era, and when I went to Milan for the first time, I immediately understood why his clothes did so well in Chicago. It was the coloring of the city," she says. Milan can be a monotone of grays, from the sky to the buildings. Giorgio Armani's palette of beige, gray and oatmeal fit right in with Chicago's iced over, salt-stained winters. "People who wear bright colors come from areas with lots of sun," she says. "Those subdued colors just fit the landscape."

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