Not Only in Vogue, but on It
Fashion Bellwether Paints a Glowing Portrait of the First Lady

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

First lady Michelle Obama appears on the March cover of Vogue, becoming one of two first ladies to be pictured on the famed cover. The first was Hillary Clinton.

In the photo, taken by Annie Leibovitz, Mrs. Obama is leaning on a soft beige sofa at the Hay-Adams Hotel, where the first family stayed days before the historic inauguration. She is wearing a magenta dress by Jason Wu, who designed her inaugural ball gown. Her hand rests under her chin. Her left hand is folded beneath her.

Behind her, soft light streams between curtains. It is the pose of America's sweetheart.

Inside the magazine, a photograph shows her in a black dress by designer Narciso Rodriguez. She is standing in front of open French doors. Outside is Lafayette Square and in the distance you can just see the White House. Behind her are the props of her profession: a laptop, a coffee cup. A notepad, a pen. A folded newspaper. She is connected to her work by an old-fashioned telephone, the spiral cord stretched, the receiver at her right ear.

Portraits of first ladies have often intrigued us. Portraits once were captured in oil. More recently, Leibovitz has become a famous portraitist. She photographed Queen Elizabeth II wearing a cape. Behind her, clouds threaten but her face appears calm, and the portrait seems to suggest that the queen has dominion over all things, even the sky. Leibovitz's subjects have also included former president George W. Bush, former vice president Dick Cheney and former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin L. Powell.

In another Vogue photo, Mrs. Obama is shown wearing a J. Crew wool cardigan and a tweed skirt. She is writing on a legal pad. A coffee cup and saucer sit on a magazine on a table in front of her. She is surrounded by books. In the caption, Mrs. Obama says: "We learned in our household that there was nothing you couldn't talk about and that you found humor in even the toughest times. I want to bring that spirit of warmth, openness and stability to my task."

Starting with Lou Hoover, Herbert Hoover's wife, first ladies have consistently been photographed for Vogue, but those photos have often appeared inside where they are well placed -- not quite hidden, but not quite having the oomph of being featured out front.

"It's the second time a first lady has appeared on the cover of Vogue," says Patrick O'Connell, the magazine's director of communications. Hillary Clinton's cover was in 1998. The cover story is written by Vogue editor at large André Leon Talley.

In the article, Mrs. Obama tells Talley that she is settling in, trying to find a church to join and helping her daughters get adjusted. "I'm going to try to take them to school every morning -- as much as I can," she tells Talley. "But there's also a measure of independence. And obviously there will be times I won't be able to drop them off at all. I like to be a presence in my kids' school. I want to know the teacher; I want to know the other parents."

Vogue is the country's premier mainstream fashion magazine. And when it puts a woman of color on the cover, it says something about how its editors view this administration, fashion industry experts say. Even if you take race off the table, there is an awe of how this new administration can bring energy to the conversation around how beauty can intersect with power. And how power can be beauty.

"Change was the clarion call of Barack Obama's election campaign," wrote Vogue's editor, Anna Wintour, "though I don't think any of us at Vogue initially realized that would include the difference that was going to be made by First Lady Michelle Obama's wardrobe."

Wintour wrote that she was impressed by Mrs. Obama's inauguration dress, designed by Isabel Toledo, and the ball gown designed by Wu. Wintour liked the Rodriguez camel coat Mrs. Obama wore to the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Wintour went on: "It wasn't just that her choices projected a simpler, streamlined, more modern attitude, rejecting the ridiculous idea that the only way for a First Lady to dress is in the dreaded White House standard-issue uniform -- the boxy, anonymous suit that always managed to look as appealing, and as comfortable, as armor. Instead, we have a woman who is happy in newer, less obvious designer choices like Wu and Toledo. . . . It's inspiring to see our First Lady so serene and secure in her personal style."

Mrs. Obama's style has almost single-handedly reignited the fashion world, moving clothes off the rack in an industry that is wrestling with a recession. "Clothing department stores and boutiques are experiencing layoffs right now. It is a grim time for retail sales," said Mary Alice Stephenson, a celebrity stylist and fashion commentator. "The one sunny outlook seems to be Michelle Obama, because everything she puts on and the designers she champions seem to move clothes."

During the holidays, when sales slumped, it was the inauguration events at Saks Fifth Avenue and White House/Black Market that were actually selling clothes.

Mrs. Obama symbolizes the woman over 35 who still wants to be stylish, but had largely been overlooked by an industry that often glorifies youth, Stephenson said. "She is the new muse. She is the new face of that woman who does have that spending power right now."

People are intrigued by Mrs. Obama. She has an authenticity that people say they identify with. Huge crowds turn up at her events. "People see themselves in her," Stephenson said. "Her beauty is attainable, even her rise as first lady -- where she came from to where she is -- is attainable. She is someone women identify with."

Staff writer Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.

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