Michelle Obama's Clothes -- Tell Me What She Wore

By Jeanne McManus
Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to say this: I enjoy reading about Michelle Obama's clothes. I like to know what she's wearing, appreciate details about her shoes and gloves, wonder where she got her necklace. When she shows up at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I'm not distracted from her message by being simultaneously informed that she is in a slate-gray suit.

Is it right about here that other women start throwing shoes at me?

In the stunning image of Michelle Obama, a woman of substance and of style (in this case, attention-getting, Vogue-worthy style), it is apparent that in Washington we don't always do a good job of acknowledging those two sides of the same woman -- or of allowing them to coexist. Hawk-eyed consumers of mainstream media are ready to pounce anytime a reporter covering Mrs. Obama goes off message and writes about her clothes.

History is partly to blame for this kind of self-consciousness, a willingness to deprive ourselves of one side of the prism of an important woman for the sake of being proper and fair. First ladies have been minimized and marginalized. Hardworking, smart and capable, they were dispatched to provide flossy fodder for the "women's pages." They had causes, programs and platforms that were important to them. But if they really wanted to make news, they had only to wear a designer dress, a dramatic cape or a bad hat. Substance was undermined by style, good or bad. They were magnifications of the inequities in the lives of so many other women who were, at best, considered only as adjuncts to powerful men. In my daily reading of the obituary pages, my heart often aches for those accomplished women who came to be wives of ambassadors or military men and who now are eulogized in their 80s mostly for the overseas posts to which they accompanied their dignitary (and possibly difficult) husbands.

Each day, from complicated, multitasked lives and jumbled closets, many women crash-land into the working world. And choosing what to wear can be tricky. We obscure, we flash, we hike up and we button down. The streets are runways of power suits, wrap dresses, ballet flats and stilettos. There are still women who wear pinstripes, and, to my equal horror, there are women going to offices in tube tops and flip-flops. But whatever is on our backs, it is us, our conscious or unconscious selection of who we are, even if just for today.

Now into our midst comes a powerful, accomplished and beautiful woman, a first lady with an admittedly deep closet, deep pockets, access to famous designers and struggling newcomers, and the occasional tendency to shop in mid-price catalogues such as J. Crew. Wherever, whatever: It's her turn in the spotlight, and she pulls it all together and emerges with a style that to me reflects her likable forthrightness. The clothes she wears are a means of self-expression. So why can't we appreciate that particular form of her expression as well as her many others? To dissect the components of that style and to admire it, I believe, is profoundly different from talking about Carrie Bradshaw's belt or flipping through glossy pictures of Scarlett Johansson on the red carpet.

The first lady is a composite; she is not getting attention solely for her clothes. To give Michelle Obama her due, can't we acknowledge that by mentioning her speech and, in the same breath, noting the smart white collar and cuffs on the outfit she wore to the Education Department?

I understand the dilemma faced by mainstream media in the coverage of this first lady at this moment in time. Of course, there are ham-handed ways of weaving details about her clothes into news stories. But there are also artful, respectful ways that don't leave readers in the dark. The Hemline Patrol will always be out there, chastising coverage that veers even slightly away from substance and toward style. But I think we have an opportunity for another kind of change in the coverage of a woman who thinks smart, talks smart and looks smart. Why can't we readers be allowed to see the whole picture?

Jeanne McManus, a former Post editor, is an occasional contributor to the op-ed page.

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