Robin Givhan on Culture: Peer Into the First Lady's Closet and You'll See an Entire Nation's Hang-Ups

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

For Michelle Obama, the task of dressing to please a nation will not be easy, especially a nation with a population as diverse, as judgmental and as addicted to YouTube as ours. But as first lady, that is Obama's challenge, not because it is her job to appease the aesthetic sensibility of 300 million citizens but because it is her fate as she steps into a role that is ill-defined and largely symbolic.

As a culture we have become increasingly accustomed to nitpicking the styles of the famous. The red carpet postmortem is irresistible during the award show season, and everyone loves a makeover after which viewers judge whether the weight loss, new hairstyle, refreshed makeup or modernized wardrobe has been as wonderfully transforming as advertised.

That superficial fascination with style combines with the stature of the first lady's position, the personal stake that so many folks have in the way in which this first African American first lady will be perceived and the deeply felt desire that America be viewed with admiration and respect.

"With around-the-clock TV, people are more aware of their style and what they have on," says Ann Stock, who worked as White House social secretary during the Clinton administration. "Public personalities are much more aware of stepping out of their house now. Even within our White House, you can have a cellphone picture taken."

The result is that clothes receive an exceptional degree of attention. They are a topic on which everyone has an opinion. And when it comes to clothes worn by the first lady, we are shamelessly fickle and unfair.

We love a first lady in a classic sheath except when we think it's inappropriately bare. We are attracted to glamour until it becomes distracting. We argue emphatically about fashion except when we're declaring it trivial. We want the first lady's clothes to be modern but cringe if they are too trendy. We love a first lady with an athletic physique, but we get uncomfortable when we can actually see it. We are deeply dysfunctional and tortured in our relationship to fashion. Tim Gunn, help us all.

Obama's style so far has been mostly distinguished by her fondness for a sleeveless, body-conscious dress often adorned with playful brooches or worn with a strand of marble-size pearls. That preference has led to comparisons to Jackie Kennedy, the last first lady to rise to the level of fashion icon in the popular imagination.

But even Kennedy couldn't please the public all the time, even after she managed to quell the upset over her affection for high-priced French design. She was particularly taken to task in the spring of 1962 when she attended Good Friday services in Palm Beach, Fla., in a sleeveless turquoise sundress, sandals, no pantyhose and with a scarf tied around her head instead of a hat. What precisely gave offense? The scarf and the bare arms, says Hamish Bowles, an editor at Vogue and the creative consultant for the 2001 exhibition "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years -- Selections From the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum."

The public has conveniently forgotten that even Kennedy's style had to evolve. "If you look at Jacqueline Bouvier as a debutante and as a young married woman, there was a lot of debutante crinoline froth and a certain amount of fussiness," Bowles says.

It is, perhaps, unfair to compare Obama to Kennedy simply because they share a preference for a kind of dress -- as if Kennedy has ownership of the sheath, which would mean that Hillary Clinton has custody of the pantsuit. The comparison is more apt in reference to their youthfulness and the way in which their attire bears the imprint of their times. In the Kennedy exhibition catalogue, the first lady is quoted telling designer Oleg Cassini: "I will never become stuffy, but there is a dignity to the office that suddenly hits one."

In the past 20 years, however, first lady style remained dignified, but it also became staid. As the average woman watched the rules of fashion fall away and the revelation of more and more skin has become standard, the first lady fell under more constraints. Her uniform became a boxy suit and sensible heels.

While fashion connoisseurs and younger women have been delighted to see Obama baring her arms, older or more conservative observers find it inappropriate. They see it as too informal, even disrespectful to the position. The first lady is dressing to secular norms, after all, not religious ones.

Nearly 50-year-old images of Kennedy look more contemporary -- in terms of fashion -- than do images of more recent first ladies. In photograph after photograph of Kennedy during her years in the White House, she is wearing a sleeveless dress, a strapless gown or capris. She is pictured wearing a backless sundress. And on at least one occasion, she posed for an official photograph wearing an ivory halter-style gown that bared her back.

Nancy Reagan wore a one-shouldered gown to her first inauguration. She even wore knickers, a fact that should serve as evidence of her trendy adventurousness rather than her good judgment.

But from Barbara Bush to Laura Bush, we've grown accustomed to first ladies whose approach to fashion essentially has been: First, do no harm.

Barbara Bush used her grandmotherly image as a way of opting out of fashion.

Clinton tried to have a more fashionable profile but was pummeled into surrender. She was criticized in 1993 for her inauguration hat and for her purple sparkly gown. They were too parochial. They lacked elan. But then she hosted a dinner at the White House wearing one of designer Donna Karan's cold-shoulder dresses and folks raised eyebrows wondering if it was too sexy, too trendy, too too. Critics accused her of using clothes as tools for political propaganda, from the pink suit news conference when she was on a charm offensive with the media to the "dragon" coat when she went to confront the grand jury. By the time she welcomed Laura Bush to the White House, she was wearing a plain black pantsuit. Fashionwise, she had thrown in the towel.

Laura Bush has managed to stay out of the fashion crossfire by wearing different versions of the same utterly okay suit for the past eight years: knee-length, A-line skirt with a jacket that buttons almost to the neck.

So far Obama, like Kennedy, has refused to be stuffy. She has been attentive to her family's media image as evidenced by the neatly coordinated ensembles for family photographs. And she has enthusiastically embraced young American designers and voiced her desire to wear -- and celebrate -- their work. First lady fashion may be catching up with the times. Hopefully, her citizen critics will not stand in the way.

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