By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; E06
First lady Michelle Obama returned to the White House last week after spending her summer vacation walking the fine fashion line between comfortably casual and utterly camera-ready. Her travel attire served as a wake-up call to all those American tourists who have blighted the national landscape with their ill-fitting shorts, sad-sack T-shirts and aggressively revealing tank tops: You can do better.
More than her cocktail dresses, evening gowns and the rest of her official wardrobe, which all draw boisterous analysis, Obama's vacation clothes are positioned to have the most widespread impact. Please, let it be so.
In a society where public attire has grown increasingly pajama-fied, the first lady offered proof that informal doesn't mean sloppy and pulled-together doesn't have to be stuffy.
The summertime challenge for the 46-year-old, athletic first lady and mother of two tweens was balancing the wardrobe requirements for biking, miniature golfing and beach lounging with the fact that all those images would be logged into the historical record. She could not remain placidly at rest while her children played hard. "Let's move," after all, is her battle cry. Still, she is the first lady. Vacation or not, public trip or private visit, with a security detail and local cops on call, she remains in the spotlight.
After all the criticizing that was done in this column over her unfortunate summer 2009 decision to disembark from Air Force One wearing mid-thigh hiking shorts for strolling -- not hiking, not rappelling, not running -- the Grand Canyon, it seems only fair to take note of this summer's wardrobe, which struck all the right chords.
Obama spent her month-long holiday wearing a mix of unfussy sundresses, feminine tank tops and sporty pedal pushers. For all the inferences read into the first couple's vacation destinations, from Panama City Beach, Fla. -- The beaches are safe! -- to Martha's Vineyard -- Isn't this where all the Democratic presidents go? -- there was also a take-away message from the first lady's wardrobe. Through her vacation apparel, with its mix of Banana Republic and Narciso Rodriguez, Obama threw down the gauntlet, providing folks with a high-profile lesson on how to be a well-dressed tourist who does not cause the locals to flinch in dismay. Yet she still managed to convey a middle-of-the-road Americanness. She represented the populace in a manner that was approachable but savvy.
In the most prominent photograph from her trip to Spain, she was wearing a black and white one-shoulder top by designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Certainly, Gaultier doesn't come cheap, but the blouse wasn't ostentatious and, paired with black trousers, it was a fine example of how to be bare without baring all. During a game of miniature golf, she wore a Banana Republic tank top -- mass market but with a sophisticated sensibility. For dinners out with the president in Martha's Vineyard, she tucked black leggings under a Duro Olowu patchwork tunic, and she wore Rodriguez's black and white summer dress with a cropped black cardigan.
Nothing about her choices was particularly avant-garde. They weren't scorchingly highfalutin in their style. If one tried to dissect the selections as evidence of some political intent, the single most applicable word would be "global." Creativity is not limited by borders. With the Rodriguez dress, she again brought attention to classic American silhouettes. In Gaultier, she heralded a Frenchman known for his interest in outsiders, immigrant cultures and the unique beauty found in a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. And Olowu is a Nigerian-born designer now based in London. He is the rare prominent black designer with his name on his own label.
Obama also tapped into a fantasy that the fashion industry has been desperately selling for years. Designers have long imagined a world in which women and men are thoughtfully polished and even chic as they go about their daily activities. Stylists constantly counsel clients to keep aesthetics in mind, as well as comfort, when they choose their weekend wear. In fashion-land, no one ever wears skimpy jogging shorts when they bike; they wear charming clam diggers. They don't wear lumpy basketball shoes, instead they choose laceless, retro sneakers. The images of Obama cycling along the paths of Martha's Vineyard called these fantasies to mind. She proved that they can be made real. She reassured designers that no, they are not off their rocker. American vacation sloppiness is not inevitable; it's willful.
Of course, most women don't have the pressure of being constantly trailed by photographers to push them to take an extra peek in the mirror before heading out. They are not chauffeured hither and yon in a motorcade. No matter how hot the day, one never seems to see a giant sweat stain spreading across the first lady's back as she waves to a crowd. Is the atmosphere inside the security bubble magically air-conditioned? (One hopes average Janes are lucky enough, like the first lady, to have a gallant partner or friend who will helpfully hoist an umbrella up and over all obstacles to prevent them from getting soaked in a downpour. See POTUS: New Orleans.)
Unlike the first lady, everyday tourists are not the center of attention. Still, when regular folks travel abroad, they represent both themselves and the collective American identity. Must we continue to be perceived as the most poorly dressed of all tourists? And for those who remain in the States during the final long weekend of the summer, as you visit national parks and local beaches, remember: We are all part of the landscape. We are part of the postcard image, the memory that's tucked into a scrapbook. We should do our best not to mar this country's natural beauty.