On Culture by Robin Givhan: The First Lady's First Wardrobe, Speaking First to Mrs. Obama's Personality

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Few first ladies have caused as much breathless anticipation for their Inauguration Day wardrobes as Michelle Obama. But soon after she stepped onto the national stage as the candidate's wife, Obama was elevated to a fashion star whose tastes ran from high-end designers to mass marketer H&M. She had the impressive height of a runway model, the figure of a real woman -- a size 12 according to one fashion publicist -- and took an admitted delight in looking "pretty."

For the historic moment when she became this country's first African American first lady, Obama chose a lemon-grass yellow, metallic sheath with a matching coat by the Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo. The dress followed her curves -- paying special attention to the hips -- and announced that the era of first lady-as-rectangle had ended. It signaled a generational shift in what women could be on the national stage. They could boldly embrace color and reveal their power, their femininity and their legs.

Recent first ladies seem to have tried -- at least during the first term -- to hold on to the idea of normalcy, no matter that they are living in the White House with staff, security and the albatross of history. At their husbands' first inaugurations, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush wore uninspired clothes that seemed to make a case against the women's being unique.

Obama's mere presence on the Capitol steps yesterday was an anomaly -- and her clothes celebrated that. Her coat and dress made her look exceptional -- and vaguely regal -- as she stood holding Lincoln's cranberry-hued Bible in her gloved hand as her husband took the oath of office. Her daughters, Malia in a grape-colored coat and black tights and Sasha in pale pink and tangerine, were like her little ladies-in-waiting. President Obama, he was the somber one, in his dark overcoat with a tiny flag pin, his white shirt, red tie and his face tilted ever so slightly to the sky.

With Toledo, Michelle Obama reached into the loftiest corners of the fashion industry and chose a small design house where the person whose name is on the label is the same person hunched over the sketchpads, following production and fretting about whether she will be able to get her merchandise to market on time. Obama avoided the expected names, the well-funded houses and the corporate designers. Toledo does not advertise. Her wares are sold in only a handful of stores, from Barneys New York to Chicago's Ikram, the North Rush Street shop where Obama has been a regular customer.

She wore the ensemble with olive leather gloves and Jimmy Choo pumps that were a deeper, forest shade of green, refraining from going dreadfully matchy-matchy. The entire picture spoke of womanliness, grandeur and elegance, and it declared Obama's ease with being a woman of modest background thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Shy and retiring personalities do not wear glittering citron under the noon sun.

For her inaugural gown, Obama chose another young New York-based designer, Jason Wu, 26. His custom-made gown, in flowing ivory silk chiffon with a single strap, was embroidered with silver thread and adorned with Swarovski crystal rhinestones. This is the barest gown that a first lady has worn at an inauguration since Nancy Reagan wore a James Galanos gown to usher in Ronald Reagan's first term. Wu's dress bares Obama's arms and shoulders and brings the first lady into the modern era, in which glamour is defined by Hollywood and the red carpet rather than protocol and tradition.

The dress speaks to Wu's signature style: grown-up clothes with a youthful flourish. Wu, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and studied in Paris and Vancouver, B.C., as well as at Parsons design school in New York, has been in business only since 2006. Obama wore his clothes and Toledo's during the campaign.

Obama's grace yesterday gave no hint of her ambivalence about the public obsession with her style, which began early in the campaign. Her appearance on "The View" in a $148 sundress proved that she not only could stir interest in fashion but also could move merchandise simply by wearing it. With her Ivy League pedigree, her high-powered job and her soccer-mom credentials, she made the case that any woman could and should embrace fashion. When she casually commented that she never wore pantyhose, the definition of dressing for success changed. When she bounded onto the stage in her sleeveless dresses, with her muscular post-Title IX arms in full view, the definition of a strong woman changed.

Obama has been compared to Jacqueline Kennedy, the last first lady to so thoroughly embrace style as a form of communication. Much is made of the fact that they both wore sleek, sleeveless dresses and had an affection for pearls. But the real similarities may be in the way they used clothes to set a tone for their husbands' administrations.

As her husband's administration promises more jobs and help for small-business owners, and emphasizes creativity as one of this country's greatest assets, Obama's choice of an iconoclastic, immigrant female designer with a modest business sends a profound message of intent.

The frantic guessing game of what Obama would wear was fueled by scant information and even fewer rumors. She kept her secret by calling in multiple gowns. A small village of designers created daywear. Her spokeswoman, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, said that in the days before the swearing-in, the first lady had been in no hurry to pick out her wardrobe. Her focus was on her children and getting her family moved, not once but three times, McCormick Lelyveld said.

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