All Hail the Leader of the Fashionable World

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.

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.

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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