Robin Givhan on Michelle Obama's Sense of Style

Robin Givhan
Washington Post Fashion Editor
Monday, January 12, 2009 11:00 AM

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Robin Givhan talked about the winning design in The Post's First Lady Formalwear Contest, offers her thoughts about Michele Obama's style and who she should choose to design her inaugural gown.

The transcript follows.

About the winning design: A First Lady Gowned in Green Would Be a Go

Givhan column archive


Washington, D.C.: Hi Robin,

When will we hear confirmation on Michele Obama's chosen designer/gown for the inauguration?!

Robin Givhan: Soon. Or else the collective heads of Seventh Avenue are going to explode.


Arlington, Va.: I sure hope Michelle Obama doesn't listen to you. That dress you chose for her is hideous!! She may be fit, but she does not have a great figure. She doesn't need anything clingly to accentuate her hips. I know you don't agree with this, but Michelle is no fashion maven (nor does she need to be). If her taste runs to that black and red disaster she wore on election night, we are in for a bumpy fashion ride from her.

Robin Givhan: ok, so let's just cut to the bottom line here. Yes, MO has hips. And no, that black and red Narciso Rodriguez dress from election night was not the best choice for the circumstances. But i think there are a lot of folks out there who would argue that MO has a fantastic figure precisely because she DOES have a narrow waist and wider hips. And while that dress does acknowledge her curves, it's not especially clingy. It does flow. But I think this just goes to the point that it will be impossible for her to please everyone with her choice.


Washington, D.C.: Dearest Robin: I think Mrs Obama is torn between the fiction that style doesn't matter and the reality that it does. Is there any designer who would take her by the arm and say this is your style, girl?

Robin Givhan: Dearest DC, I actually think that MO is one of the rare public women who believes that style does matter. As proof, I offer the fact that the family is generally color coordinated for those big historical photo ops and I'm just guessing that it's not Barack saying, honey, i think we should all be in a variation of red and black. That said, any number of designers would be thrilled to give her a bit of fashion advice. But I think the key is taking whatever advice she gets and translating it in a way that makes sense to her personally. I think the worse thing she could do would be to allow someone to "dress" her.


Yuma, Ariz.: I hope that Mrs. Obama will give more thought to who she is and what she represents as First Lady in building her wardrobe.

While the media (election night excepted) has raved about her stylish "Jackie" look, in reality her popster look is much too short and tight for someone who serves as a role model for all American women.

I was appalled, for example, to see her bare midriff at the U.S.S. Arizona memorial last summer and, on numerous occasions, half-way up her thighs as she sits for interviews. (I don't think I ever saw Jackie O's knees)

As first lady, Mrs. Obama puts a face on ALL American women to the rest of the world. The beautiful diversity she represents isn't just inner-city blackness but also Muslims, Mormons, Mennonites, Amish and socially conservative feminists like me.

Excessive tailoring and too much skin are distracting, can be highly offensive to many people, and sometimes even degrading to women. (I still have, indelibly etched in my memory, the front page image of Sec. of State Albright in a tight black dress sitting, knees exposed, with a Chinese leader in honor of the death of their state leader. I was ashamed for all of America.)

Anyhow, Mrs. Obama may want to look to her mother for fashion advice. Her look was the paragon of class on election night.

With respect to hemline, I suggest Andy Rooney's rule of thumb -- if you have to cross your legs when you sit, your skirt is too short.

Robin Givhan: Are you aware that MO is only 44 years old? why on earth would she dress like her mother? And while Jackie may not ever have shown her knees - a statement I cannot confirm - remember that was more than 40 years ago. I'm not saying that MO should be dressing provocatively, but I don't think she needs to dress in a way that adheres to the religious standards of various citizens. She is a secular figurehead, not a religious one.


Washington, D.C.: Which designer would be your pick?

Robin Givhan: Oh lots of designers could serve her well, I think. I'd give Narciso Rodriguez another go. The election night dress didn't go over well, but he's a master of tailoring and really understands curves. Maria Pinto clearly makes her happy. I think Derek Lam could pull off something lovely and so could Michael Kors. They all speak in a more minimal vernacular...and I don't see her wanting to be swathed in a pile of ruffles on Jan. 20. But what do I know? She hasn't friended me on Facebook or anything...


Washington, D.C.: How do you think Michelle Obama views her role as a style icon, who do you think would be good role models for her to look to?

Robin Givhan: My sense is that she views the idea of herself as a style icon with some ambivalence. She clearly enjoys fashion and thinks about it. But that's only one part of who she is and i don't think anyone would want to be transformed into a style icon at the expense of everything else on their resume.

As for role models? That's a tough one. The obvious answer is Jackie Kennedy, but I think she might find inspiration from all over...the same places that other women do.


Richmond, Va.: "Good figure" does not equal no hips! Everyone is shaped differently, and IF you are fit, flatter & flaunt what you've got! Maybe people will start to learn a different set of standards for beauty aside from the toothpick model...

Robin Givhan: I couldn't agree more...


"may be fit but doesn't have a great figure": Honey, she looks like a woman! Thank heavens she's a real person and not some tiny little starved beanpole that disappears when she turns sideways.

I think she looks great and can't wait to see how she dresses.

Robin Givhan: Another poster who I agree with wholeheartedly. It's interesting that some people zero in on the fact that she has hips as reason to camouflage her bottom half instead of celebrating it.


Towson, Md.: So, what are the odds that any of the professionals who submitted possible inauguration gowns to your contest will make Ms. Obama's list of potential designers for her official wardrobe? Think there is a reality show in here somewhere -- I can see it now, 12 contestants competing for the right to become First Designer. Think you are up for the task of hosting?

Robin Givhan: If Bravo is calling, I'm answering the phone! While some of the designers who submitted sketches may have been contacted by MO's team or may have made the effort to reach out them, none of the sketches we published would have been ideas that they would have submitted to MO.

But I do like the idea of a designer run-off. Make 'em work for the honor!


Anonymous: Why the obsession with Jackie Kennedy? Actually she did show her knees upon occasion which drew attention to her less than perfect legs. Michelle is her own self. Not born with the silver spoon of privilege she has earned her position with brains and plain hard work. She is an intelligent and gracious woman with her own personality and agenda and she will grace the White House with her own stlyle.

Robin Givhan: MO is all of that and more, I'm sure. The Jackie comparison is because Mrs. Kennedy represented the last time that people felt personal style was on display in the White House. (Mrs. Reagan wore designer clothes, but there's a difference between projected a specific style and just wearing fancy clothes.)Also, Jackie wore sheats and pearls and had a preppy flair. See MO. But yes, she has her own point-of-view and once we see more of it, I'm sure the comparisons will stop. Or at leasat be minimized.


Washington, DC: Hate to bring politics into this, but in Ann Coulter's latest screed, she goes after Michelle Obama fashion choices because she is "imitating Jackie." I don't know about you, but I would consider that praise. If you're going to copy someone, copy someone with real taste, class, and style. And not someone who entire wardrobe comes from a 1980s Robert Palmer video.

Robin Givhan: I'm not going to get into a jello wrestling match with Coulter, but I hardly think that even if MO was imitating Jackie that that would be something to get all riled up about. Now, if she was imitating Jennifer Lopez....that would be a different story.


Washington, D.C.: What audacity The Post has...wasting Internet space on a chat about what Mrs. Obama is going to wear during the inauguration...Here's a freaking guess...A damn guess is that it is going to be rather cold when President-elect Obama is sworn in. The bias that has bestowed itself upon the WAPO is truly sad as hell!

Robin Givhan: And you have a nice day, too. I'm guessing you're generally the one with the dark cloud over your head while everyone else is standing under sunshine...


D.C.: I am surprised by all of the negative comments regarding Michelle Obama and her sense of style. I think she is one of the few public figures that dares to be different. And I think she pulls it off sensationally! Moreover, while some gripe about her shape, as an African-American woman I find her to be statuesque and lovely! She has curves and she embraces them. Not being stick thin and being comfortable in her skin is lovely.

I hope everyone that is so critical of her style (and her shape) take a moment and reflect on themselves. Maybe while devoting so much energy to disparaging her, they could take some time to embrace and upgrade themselves.

Robin Givhan: This is one of those no win situations. If MO was a size 2 people would be outraged that she was too thin and complaining that no one could relate to her because she has the shape of a model. I'm not sure what happened to all that whining about why are women with "real" figures celebrated as fashionable and stylish, blah, blah, blah. I think it reflects, culturally, our tortured relationship to fashion, body image, gender and sexuality. We need a national therapist.


Washington, D.C.: I agree the green dress would look good on Michelle Obama.

Since the prez-elect went to Ben's Chili Bowl with the Mayor to get a little taste of local D.C...where/who would you recommend the new First Lady explore in terms of interesting DC boutiques or designers?

Robin Givhan: YOu think I would dare attempt to answer this question and have every owner of every boutique i didn't mention come after me with a sledgehammer!!?? I think, though, that retailers in the District can feel confident that MO will be willing to check out their wares. The family seems to really want to get to know the District.


Arlington, Va.: I thought the black and red dress on Election night was fantastic! I was stunned and thrilled when she walked out in it. Now I'll give you that the cardigan ruined the look. Had she worn a cropped silk jacket it would have been wow, wow, wow. Most seem to argue that it proves she has poor style. I say it proves that she's almost there. I can't wait to see if I'm proven right on Gala night.

Robin Givhan: I don't think anyone - no matter how stylish or how many advisers they have, manage to get things right every time. Frankly, I think the dress was more problematic because it didn't photograph well, rather than because of the actual design. I've seen a lot of dresses in person that looked awful in pictures.


Boston: I think that Michelle probably has excellent taste in real life, but hasn't yet learned what photographs well. For example, I've heard that her election night dress looked much better in person because all the black looked the same, instead of the crisscross bit being so much shinier like it was in video. Same for some of her more casual looks, which probably look cute at the moment, but a little odd recorded for prosperity.

What do you think?

Robin Givhan: Absolutely. TV can do odd things to patterns, textures and silhouettes. While I don't often go around quoting the celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, there was one particularly insightful moment on her reality show in which she looked at a dress on a client and commented that the pleats were really pretty on the runway or when you're moving but when you're standing still for a picture they're going to poke out in strange ways. She advised the client not to wear the dress.


SW Nebraska: Coats are important, too. Remember when Cheney showed up at a memorial in Europe looking as though he thought it was a hunting trip? I doubt if Michelle will look to Cabella's for inspiration in that department. Dick Cheney, Dressing Down (Post, Jan. 28, 2005)

Robin Givhan: ah yes....when coats go wrong. and remember Mrs. Bush's last swearing in ensemble? It was stunning and it was pretty much about a winter white coat and camel-colored pumps.


Arlington, Va.: Why the focus only on Michelle? Does anyone care about what the next President will be wearing? What designer tux will he wear to the various balls? Bush-blue for a tie? How about some fair treatment of the other half!

Robin Givhan: I think the menswear industry is actually quite excited about what Barack will wear. Hart Schaffner Marx has said they've made a tux for him - which the transition team will neither confirm nor deny, because that's the way they are - and not that there's anything wrong with that.

And if i had to guess on the swearing in suit, I'd assume he wear one of the half-dozen new ones he recently had made. personally i'm hoping for a more formal tie -- perhaps in a silvery blue. and maybe a pair of cufflinks with some sort of symbolism. I wonder if his grandpa passed along any...


Tucson, Ariz.: I thought that the chosen design was terrific, and loved the deep color. I was also very impressed with some of the other submitted designs, especially those by the younger children. It amazed me that kids under 16 could come up with so many diverse designs that looked terrific.

Michelle Obama's figure is great, but it isn't perfect. How the heck does she manage to dress in those great body conscious clothes with no wrinkles, dips, lines, or any other distractions? She must have a monster foundation garment!

Robin Givhan: I was impressed by the designs from the kids as well. What was especially nice is that they simply drew party clothes...they weren't trying too hard to be patriotic or grand or whatever.

Body conscious just means that the clothes fit....not that they're tight. And a lot of those wool fabrics don't wrinkle so easily.


Anonymous: For the evening perhaps her hair should be sculptured back and slightly up a la Grecian? Any thoughts on the jewellery to accent these gorgeous lines?

Robin Givhan: The jewelry will depend on the neckline of the dress, right? If it has a neckline similar to the one sketched by our reader winner, I'd imagine she'd stick to earrings and a bracelet. I'm partial to colored stones - citrine, peridot, garnet, etc. I think they look more dazzling i pictures. but as i said, MO is not my Facebook friend.


to Mr. Dark Cloud: If you think this is a waste, wow you should be around when we debate on other boards about who's the cutest member of D.C. United and the horrors of pleated pants. As to Michelle, can't wait to see what she wears. For Barack Obama, are designers also vying to see which tux he wears? Or do you think he has an old one in the closet already and will just wear that?

Robin Givhan: as I mentioned earlier, hart schaffner marx says they're making his tux. his first new one in 15 years....which is impressive to me that the man has been able to fit into the same tuxedo all that time.

and while womenswear designers are more vociferous in their enthusiasm for dressing Michelle, remember, this is the president elect who has appeared on the cover of Men's Vogue. Menswear designers are vibrating with enthursiam.



Robin Givhan: just a reminder of election night...


Silver Spring, Md.: I think Michelle has a great figure, mostly accentuated with her confidence. She walks straight and tall and really projects self awareness. In terms of her fashion choices, I think she needs to be looking for things that balance her out. Accentuate the waist, add some dimension to the top, downplay the hips. She's got all the right stuff, she just needs to market it better.

Robin Givhan: market it...ok, maybe it's just my tawdry little mind this afternoon, but that has a rather odd ring to it. i'm just sayng. i think your analysis of her style is dead on and i think that's what she does. the brooches pull the eye up to her neckline. she accentuates her waist and the dresses skim - but don't hug - the hips.


An Actual Kennedy-phile Here: Comparing Jackie and Michelle Obama is ridiculous. Different time, different upbringings -- different everything. She did expose her knees AND she tended to wear clothes that showed off her figure. She also matched her shoes and purses, something that I am a huge fan of that you rarely see today. Actually the one that dressed well was Ethel. While not a true beauty, Ethel wore great, fun clothes.

Robin Givhan: and so here's someone with lots to say on Jackie style. ...i can neither confirm or deny the Ethel situation.


Re: Barack's outfit: Maybe he'll go for a full-on recreation of Lincoln's swearing in clothes! (I love Obama, and while using the Lincoln bible is cool, using the same lunch menu as Lincoln's is getting into mock-able territory)

Robin Givhan: we'll know he's gone overboard if he starts growing a beard.


Out West: Dear Ms. G,

Can you please get it out to the soon-to-be first lady to get some citrus, lemony yellow in her 'drobe? It's such a gorgeous color and so few women can wear it and she could wear the hell out of it. Thanks from all of us who wish we COULD wear it.

Robin Givhan: I absolutely agree with this. I'm hoping for more yellow-tones as well....i do seem to remember her in a great shade of pumpkin....


Outer Banks, N.C.: Speaking of coats gone wrong, remember the Hillary Clinton hat/coat debacle? Do you think MO will wear a hat?

Is it customary for the First Lady to wear one gown all evening or do they sometimes change between balls?

Robin Givhan: they wear one gown for the entire evening. (although there might be others for events earlier in the week, like those bipartisan dinners for McCain, Biden and Powell.)

I cannot imagine MO wearing a hat. There has been no evidence to suggest that she is a hat kind of woman. And if you are not a hat woman, only bad things can happen if you decide to plop one on your heard for the swearing in.


Are you aware that MO is only 44 years old? : You should be asking, Are you aware that MO is already 44 years old? That's middle aged, and she should dress accordingly -- not dowdy but not the least bit suggestively either. She's too old and her role as First Lady is too serious for "If you've got it, flaunt it." Maybe she should consult Nancy Pelosi's hubby for fashion tips, as her wardrobe choices always look polished, professional, elegant and age-appropriate.

Robin Givhan: wow, and i'll bet you want MO in a pair of mom jeans, too.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Robin. I was struck by your comment "Hart Schaffner Marx has said they've made a tux for him." Do you think it's indiscreet of HSM to say that publicly before the event? It may be fine to say so afterward, but beforehand seems tacky. I know Obama has said publicly that he has a few suits from HSM, but it's his choice to say so. In the fashion industry, is it not considered indiscreet for a designer to blab about who wears their clothes?

Thanks for doing this chat -- I for one am delighted that we're talking about fashion, given all the gloomy news out there in the world.

Robin Givhan: it's not tacky. it's quite normal for designers to announce that so-and-so will be wearing their garments to a particular event. in the case of celebs and award shows, they tend to wait until the last minute because celebs notoriously change their mind.

on the issue of First Family clothing, designers tend to be extremely discreet. if j-lo gets made at you maybe she won't wear your clothes, if POTUS gets annoyed, you might find your self audited. ha!

and in these economic times, it's a big deal to be able to say the First Family chose this and that. It's an honor that companies would want to share. it's great advertising (see Blackberry)

i can only guess the unwillingness of his peeps to say anything about it is ....well, frankly, i can't guess. i'm completely baffled.


Chicago: As much I love Michelle as a person, her style can be a bit schiczophrenic. We all agree that the election night dress was a poor choice but not as bad as the dress she wore when Barak accepted the nomination in Denver. It was some flowery, kimono style dress worn with flat shoes, it was hideous. She should stay away from tiny floral clothes.

I think she has wonderful shape that should be shown more in her clothing choices. For example, no one has mentioned the red dress she wore to DC after the election. She looked fabulous.

Whatever she chooses to wear that night, I hope it is accentuated with heel higher than 2 inches. Its more than okay to be taller than your husband if you are looking absolutely fabulous.

Robin Givhan: i actually think it's sort of cool that she's taller than he is in heels.

the Denver dress was Thakoon and i thought it was a little young....that belt hanging down teh back made it look a bit like a child's party dress.

the red White House dress was Maria Pinto and was quite sophisticated, i thought.


D.C.: Hi Robin, I know this is a discussion about the first-lady to be, but since it is the day after the Golden Globes, I can't help but ask for your opinions on the hits and misses of the evening.

Robin Givhan: i couldn't resist veering off topic for GG moment. I thought everyone looked pretty great. Tom Cruise looked shockingly fabulous. I dunno what was going on, but he just looked polished and great. Laurence Fishburne's red tie was an atrocity. And while I love a comeback story, and I was thrilled for Mickey Rourke, that hair, that chain, the sequins, the sunglasses, the madness. no wonder he almost tripped coming up to the stage. how could he see through all of that craziness hanging in his face.

the women looked great. did not love Renee Zellwegger's hair or Drew Barrymore's. Loved Kate Winslett and Sigourney and Susan Sarandon because their ensembles were so spare and dramatic.

Someone must have a talk with Jennifer Lopez. Trying to repeat that Versace, cut-down-to-there dress moment was not a good idea. It was especially flattering and it looked off for the Globes...too revealing, too over-the-top.


44 is middle age?: Geez, at 44 you might as well be preparing for your trip to the nursing home! Heck, I'M 44!! I am not going to wear mom jeans. Boy folks sure have their undies in a bundle over this!

I really like the green dress that won the contest. I don't typically follow fashion stuff since I typically don't follow what do I know!?

Robin Givhan: Since I agree with everything you said....I happen to think you know a lot!!

Thanks for playing folks. It was a pleasure!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive