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Robin Givhan on Culture: Fashion Is Just Part of the Fabric of First Lady's Life

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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Finally, it may be that fashion enthusiasts have become accustomed to the sight of a first lady who rarely wears suits, who prefers her dresses form-fitting and who has, perhaps, never seen a brooch that she could resist.

Michelle Obama visited an orphanage in Moscow; she toured the earthquake zone in L'Aquila, Italy, and she withstood the heat of Accra, Ghana, in a series of ensembles that reassured fashion folks that her contemporary style was not a fluke but, at the same time, did not send them into such spasms of rapture that they couldn't focus on what she said or did. The long season of widespread Obama fashion mania may finally have passed.

All it took was a little white sheath with black ribbon embroidery by Jason Wu. It was a fashion repeat. She'd worn the dress last year during a Barbara Walters interview. The do-over served as a reminder -- although none should have been necessary -- that the only people who don't re-wear their clothes are those who don't have to pay for them. See: Hollywood's red carpet. The first lady is not a starlet.

This fashion decompression began in Moscow when she stepped off Air Force One dressed in a coat by Michael Kors and a dress by Narciso Rodriguez, both in the same shade of coral. As usual, she had a belt cinched high on the waist with the coat half open. Key phrase here: "as usual." Nice, but no new first lady fashion ground broken. The spectacularly disinterested Russians didn't even notice what she was wearing; all they cared about was that she was not naked.

Next came that case of Wu deja vu.

She followed up with simple black trousers and twin sets, brooches, statement necklaces and an assortment of ballet flats and kitten heels. And, of course, there were more sheaths, including a taxicab yellow one in Rome. It was bright enough to stop traffic, but not so unusual that it inspired rubbernecking.

Fashion has returned to its rightful place in the story of this first lady. It has receded into the chorus -- a detail that helps define who she is. The only problem is that now, center stage needs a new star.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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