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

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Obama saved any announcement of her final choices until the last minute. But once the wardrobe began to roll out, beginning with the whistle-stop tour from Philadelphia to the nation's capital, it was clear that she would continue to shift between price points, alternating between fitting in and standing out. For the train trip, she wore a black swing coat -- one that she'd been photographed wearing in Chicago this winter -- with a purple three-quarter kimono sleeve jacket by Zero Maria Cornejo. Who? Cornejo is another New York-based designer with a dedicated following and virtually no profile outside the fashion industry.

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Obama chose a custom-made pale purple Narciso Rodriguez coat when she accompanied her husband to Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. And on Sunday afternoon, she was again wearing custom-made Rodriguez: a camel wool coat and matching skirt with a black silk beaded blouse. She paired it with nude legs and low-heeled pumps. (A quibble: The line of that ensemble might have been better served with a pair of boots rather than those sensible heels.) The look was accessorized with a pair of diamond chandelier earrings by Loree Rodkin that retail for $17,313. They were lent by the Chicago boutique Ikram.

For the Kids' Inaugural concert, she dressed in J. Crew.

The bill for the entire inaugural trousseau was paid by the Obamas, McCormick Lelyveld said.

The easy shift between price points has captivated observers accustomed to recent first ladies who have dressed in either pricey designer fashions by Seventh Avenue heavyweight Oscar de la Renta or nondescript blahness. Obama dresses the way contemporary women do, mixing J. Crew with the splurges in their closet. They combine pragmatism with polish. And for this inauguration, despite the dire shape of the economy, they also brought glamour.

At a brunch sponsored by Essence on Sunday afternoon, the room was filled with black women -- black women like Michelle Obama with fancy degrees, big jobs and a sense of style. They admired Obama immensely. In fact, the January issue of the magazine with Obama on the cover is on track to surpass the record set by the Tyler Perry cover, which sold 319,000 copies. They admire how she has shifted the perception of how a first lady should look. Perhaps all the attention to her clothes is unfair, too demanding. Perhaps folks should have been breathlessly anticipating what sort of initiatives she will ultimately champion. But where's the fun in that?

"The attention to clothes is always too much, but it's part of the fun. You're curious to know: What style is she going to set for this presidency," said Alexandra Martinez, assistant dean and director of admissions at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Martinez was wearing an aubergine suit by Lafayette 148 and had in her possession no less than three Badgley Mischka gowns, one for each of the balls that she would attend. Who would wear the same dress twice in one inaugural weekend? she asks. And more to the point, why should a successful, smart and fashion-conscious woman have to?


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