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Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 1 p.m. ET

First Lady Michelle Obama's Inaugural Ball Gown, Swearing-In Attire

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Robin Givhan
Washington Post Fashion Editor
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; 1:00 PM

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Robin Givhan was online Wednesday, January 21 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss Michelle Obama's fashion debut as first lady, from her swearing-in attire to her inaugural gown. Plus, Robin offers her thoughts on red carpet highlights and lowlights as everyone from Hollywood stars to local politicians hit inaugural balls.

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The transcript follows.

Today's story: All Hail the Leader of the Fashionable World

Givhan column archive

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Alexandria, Va.: Michelle doesn't seem to understand the implications of her size and shape for clothing choices.

She is very fit, and those long slender arms are really gorgeous. One of her best looks was the sleeveless purple sheath she wore in St. Paul when Barack won the nomination. Aside from showing off her arms, the dress skimmed her figure, resulting in a smooth, simple look.

But departures from such simple, smooth lines are less effective. In particular, certain kinds of prints or anything flouncy just does not work. I didn't get a sustained look, but the dress she wore to the prayer service at the National Cathedral this AM appeared to be an example of the "girly" style. A print fabric and a full skirt. Didn't work for me. What do you think?

Robin Givhan: Hi folks, thanks for joining in on the chat. Let's get to it with this question from Alexandria.

I would not want to be be Michelle Obama on inauguration weekend. Everyone is a critic... including me. Michelle likes prints and that's controversial in terms of pleasing all her observers. I tend to like prints, but it's such a personal thing and they can often go awry on television. I'm told that her look today is by Tracy Feith.

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Bel Air, Md.: I realize that this is the time for all good men to ooh and aah about the Obamas, but what atrocious taste?

Yellow dress with pea green bulky gloves? Who gives her these choices?

And the wedding dress in the evening!

Go ahead, make all the necessary excuses!

Robin Givhan: Dear Bel Air, what happened to you today? Didn't get enough caffeine this morning? why such a grumpy mood. So you don't like that particular shade of yellow. Frankly, I hate turquoise, but that doesn't mean that people who wear it have atrocious taste. And you thought the gloves were bulky? They were just leather gloves suitable to be worn with a coat.

And no, that didn't look anything like a wedding dress.

These aren't excuses. These are just facts. So there. And no, I have not had my full allotment of caffeine either.

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Green Bay, Wisc.: Why didn't someone think about the need for Michelle's dress to be the right length to dance easily in? Wedding dresses that drag on the floor are fastened up when the dancing part of the wedding reception begins. She seemed to have to spend time worrying about stepping on her hem as did her husband, the new president. This should have been a relaxing chance to just enjoy dancing together.

Robin Givhan: She wasn't stepping on her hem. The dress had a train and she was having some difficulty negotiating it. Hopefully, by their first state dinner she will have worked that out.

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Alexandria, Va.: I thought Michelle's ball gown would have looked much better without that one strap; but pretty as a strapless. Didn't care for her yellow frock; too busy. The president looked splendid in every outfit.

Robin Givhan: The gown's single strap could have used some finessing. But man, I've never seen so many people who don't like yellow. What gives? And yes, President Barack looked quite nice all day.

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Doesn't matter if we like it or not: First Lady Michelle Obama's HUSBAND LIKED IT!!

Robin Givhan: Frankly, I think all that matters is that SHE liked what she wore.

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Atlanta: I always love your articles. Your Pulitzer proves how great your writing is. Now on to my question, I feel that the First Lady is being overly criticized about her fashion choices. Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush are of different generations than Michelle Obama, but they are what is the recent collective memories of Americans of how First Ladies "should" dress. How long do you think it will be before Americans accept that a young First Lady does not and will not dress like their grandmother?

Robin Givhan: I love you Atlanta! Michelle is under more of a microscope when it comes to her style because she had a much more contemporary and accessible style on the campaign than we had been accustomed to seeing. And she has been ambivalent about that attention. But I hope she continues to push first lady style forward so that eventually it won't be a news story that the first lady wears J. Crew or some such modestly priced brand.

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Mrs. Obama's Golden Attire: I loved the golden ensemble Mrs. Obama wore for the swearing-in ceremony and the parade yesterday. I thought it was perfect. I have heard that the president's suit may have had bullet-proof qualities built into the material. Do you think Mrs. Obama's did as well.

Robin Givhan: I have not heard this and it seems unlikely to me because her suit was made by a designer not by the military.

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Boston: Do you see women's suits going out of style in favor of dresses, now that Michelle Obama has made her mark?

Robin Givhan: One of the things that was striking about Michelle's style is not only the fact that she wore lots of dresses but she was doing so when dresses were having a real fashion moment. That combination made her seem particularly fashionable. (I cannot say if she has always been a big fan of dresses.) As for suits, they're making a modest comeback in terms of popularity on the runway, but the reality is that for a lot of professional women - see Pelosi, Clinton, Rice - they will never go out of style.

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Inauguration Dress: The yellow of Michelle's day dress reminded me of that chartuese green dress Nicole Kidman wore a few years ago (for the Oscars maybe?). I remember how some people loved it and how daring the color was, especially for her skin tone and such. Others hated it. It's not a common color. I'm generally not a fan of that greenish-yellow, but I thought it looked great on Michelle. She looked very regal, and she set herself apart from the crowd. I just don't know how her legs stayed warm!!

Robin Givhan: Good memory! And if I'm remembering correctly, that Kidman dress was Dior and had some sort of fur trim. But I digress. One of the compelling things about Michelle's swearing-in suit was the color and the richness of the fabric. I think we may see other less traditional colors. This first lady clearly like bold colors and her skin tone is flattered by most of them. That said, I don't think beige or camel are her best colors.

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Wake Forest, N.C.: I know that Michelle Obama likes to give new American designers opportunities, but I don't think she should have left it to an amateur to dress her for the balls. She looked like a giant coconut cake. A truly unflattering silhouette. Luckily, Michelle is classy and statuesque, so she can wear just about anything and pull it off. But really, the designer did a huge disservice to Mrs. Obama, in my opinion. I don't think a lot of the fashion police are being honest about the dress since they like the woman wearing it - but imagine if Nancy Reagan had come out wearing something like that. The knives would have been out.

Robin Givhan: Not true. I think the so-called fashion police delight in issuing citations. Isn't that the point of their existence?

As a friend said to me earlier, the dress was not a homerun. But I thought it was lovey. And while Wu has not been in business that long, I would not describe him as an amateur. He's made his share of party dresses.

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Anonymous: I read your article in the morning paper. At the water aerobic class this morning, there was a consensus that nobody liked her clothes. The afternoon dress as someone said, "looked like a bride mother's dress, and her gown looked like a dress a teenager would wear to a prom." Today at the National Prayer Service, her dress looked like summer.

Robin Givhan: Fair enough. But then, if she'd dressed in a way that pleased you, then all the people who LIKED what she was wearing would be whining.

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modestly priced?: Robin, just an observation. I'm a well-compensated lawyer, but even my courtroom clothing costs less than J. Crew. I think of J. Crew as qualifying as a splurge--those ARE my fancy clothes, and I'm not alone in this, even among professionals. It doesn't concern me that Michelle will spend way more on clothes than I do-- but I just want it noted that her stuff is way, way higher end than most Americans, even when she wears "modest" J. Crew.

Robin Givhan: Sorry, I'm just putting things into context here. There's high-end designer fashion, there are bridge collections and there's the world of J. Crew/Ann Taylor/Banana Republic and then the world of Club Monaco/Old Navy, etc. I think it's fair to characterize J. Crew as modest - and I'm not counting their special collection which can drift into steep prices.

The context is in terms of the broader fashion industry.

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Washington, DC: Hi Robin!

I read on Jcrew's website that Malia and Sasha's outfits (or maybe just their coats) were specifically designed for them by Jcrew. How beautiful they looked. What do their choices of color say to you? Malia strikes me as responsible with her blue and Sasha, carefree and tradition be darned, with the pink and red

Robin Givhan: I can't read any sort of personality traits into the clothes. But I thought they looked charming. And while I understand that J. Crew would like some props for dressing the girls, it makes me a little squeamish to turn them in brand pitchmen.

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Age 52, Size 10: Hooray for Mrs. Obama's style - fashion forward I hope. I would like to see the industry think about the middle ground. I would like to buy something dressy that is not either a sparkly strapless clubbing dress or a shapeless tent dress with boxy jacket. I can't be alone in wanting to look nice for my age and shape.

Robin Givhan: Have you been in a Banana Republic lately? Come now, everything in stores is not club gear or a shapeless tent. Me thinks you exaggerate.

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Ohio: We all sound a little testy today. The real test is in a decade when Mrs. Obama sees her ball gown in the museum. I wonder if she will be glad of her choice. Clothes are a woman's personal choice, she chose what she liked, we get to criticize it.

Robin Givhan: Ah, a voice a reason. Yes, it will be interesting to see how history treats that gown. I suspect that it will treat it kindly. It was a pretty classic silhouette.

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McLean, Va.: Wow...I am amazed at the vitriol people can have over some clothing. 1) Michelle Obama makes interesting even daring fashion choices and I think fashion is designed to make us think 2) I applaud the non-frumpiness and 3) The way the Obamas present themselves to each other is what makes them both fashion icons to me.

Robin Givhan: You think this is vitriol McLean, you oughta read some of my e-mail! Ha! Nothing seems to rile people up more than when they feel that some fashion rule or aesthetic principle has been violated. And of course, clothing is quite personal, everyone rightly believes their opinion is valid. Sometimes they forget that just because it's valid that doesn't mean that it's the only one with value.

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Philadelphia: Hi Robin! Love your columns and your chats! I have to say I was surprised Michelle didn't chose a bright color for her evening dress but the dress she chose was very pretty. What did you think of it? I preferred her day outfit and thought she looked so beautiful. Also, there have been comments about Jill wearing boots with her day outfit and thought back to the reaction when Rice wore boots with her dress when she was at a ceremony overseas. I know you wrote an article on it, but can't remember your reaction.

washingtonpost.com: Condoleezza Rice's Commanding Clothes (Post, Feb. 25, 2005)

Robin Givhan: First of all, I loved Jill Biden's boots and feel terribly guilty for ignoring her in the face of the Michelle Obama fascination.

Also, I too was surprised that Michelle chose white for evening. I'd been told that designers had been instructed to use color in their designs. But I suppose it is the first lady's right to change her mind.

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J. Crew: Any professional woman who thinks J. Crew is on the high end needs to re-evaluate her wardrobe, stat.

Robin Givhan: Okay. I didn't want to say it. But I concur.

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San Francisco: Robin, I don't really understand these folks who are complaining that she dresses too young by showing her knees or arms. Can you help me understand this? Are there really people left who think women ought to be totally covered up? I just don't get what these people want-- a burqua?

Robin Givhan: I think these are some of the same people who write to complain that the fashion industry has totally ignored them in favor of young women and that they can't find anything to wear. And it turns out that they're 35. Frankly, I don't get it.

But the first lady is burdened by the expectation that she will adhere to tradition. And for some people tradition = covered up.

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hats: I wish everyone had worn a hat. It was cold, hats would have been practical, and American millinery needs a boost!

Robin Givhan: I disagree. She has never given any indication that she's a hat person and I think plopping one on her head Tuesday would have conjured memories of Hillary Clinton and her flying saucer chapeau. I would, however, have liked to see her mother in something other than a knit ski cap....

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Tokyo, Japan: I'm wondering if Ms. Obama pays for her own clothes, or is there some sort of stipend for clothing or what? She can't accept free clothes or clothes below market value, can she? And what's the deal with J. Crew designing special stuff for the kids: Is that legally kosher? How would those clothes be accurately valued? I reckon I could offer J. Crew $100,000 to design my kids special clothes, and they'd tell me to take a hike.

Robin Givhan: I was told by her spokesperson that she pays for all of her clothes out of her own pocket, including the inaugural clothes. I do not however think it is necessarily against the rules for her to buy wholesale, for instance.

And I'm sure J. Crew would be happy to design clothes for your kids if their picture was going to appear in practically every newspaper in the world.

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Nancy Reagan wore a one-shouldered dress...: by James Galanos, I think. I don't recall for what event. Personally I don't like them, but that's just me.

washingtonpost.com: Nancy's 1981 inaugural dress (Smithsonian Institute)

Robin Givhan: She wore it for Reagan's first inauguration and yes it was by Galanos and yes some folks thought that a woman of Nancy's age should not be showing that much skin.

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Yellow dress: There is no way I could personally wear that shade of yellow but it looked great on Mrs. Obama. I thought the gloves were fine - not that bulky and it was cold yesterday!

Imagine the fuss we would be having if she had dressed for the weather in pants.

Robin Givhan: Wouldn't it have been interesting if she'd worn pants, which would have made perfect sense given the weather. But heaven's to Betsy, folks barely seem able to deal with the fact that she goes sleeveless. Heads would have exploded if she'd worn trousers.

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yellow dress: Personally, I thought Michelle Obama's yellow dress was perfect- flattering, memorable and beautifully executed. I shudder to think of how the knock-off "artists" will corrupt it. Is it inevitable to see the dress mass-marketed this spring?

Robin Givhan: Indeed. I have already received alerts on how women can achieve Obama's "look for less."

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DC: Michelle has to got to start thinking about how the clothes read on TV. The swearing in outfit took on too many colors throughout the day and looked kind of pea green by evening. Plus, I can't believe you didn't comment on the awful rhinestone choker color on that dress. No one should be wearing a fake jewel neckline at noon! I thought the ball gown was okay, she has such a great body but definitely chose something that was just comfortable and not really to flatter her curves. It all just fell flat to me. But again, on camera it just looked white and blah, you can't see the embroidery or detail.

Robin Givhan: O wholly disagree about the necklace and suit color and, okay, everything that you said except the TV part...on which you are quite wise. Often things look completely different in person than they do on television and it is a particular kind of balancing act to be able to get that right. I felt that was part of why MO's election night dress by Narciso Rodriguez went over poorly. It did not translate to TV, at all.

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NW-DC: Comment first - what I appreciate about your columns is that they put fashion into perspective. Keep it up!

Question - What will happen to the other gowns that Michelle had made for last night's balls that she did not choose? Will she wear them for future events?

Robin Givhan: Mmmm-wah! Big kiss. Her spokeswoman would not say how many gowns were called in in total. But she would only confirm that there was more than one so that I would not infer that Michelle was choosing between a dress and going naked. My guess is that the other gown(s) will make an appearance an upcoming event.

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Washington, D.C.: Dearest Robin: is it just me or does the President have a "Tom Cruise" problem in that the wife is taller than he is? Appears to be. What does he do? Stand on her shoes?

Robin Givhan: The president is much taller than Tom Cruise. Barack is more than 6 feet tall. Tom Cruise is an elf. Michelle is 5-11. So in heels and with fluffy hair she can easily appear taller than he is.

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First Grandma: Hey - cute little old ladies can get away with a knit hat. Perfectly coordinated with her scarf -- and that may be the kind of "hat person" she is!

Robin Givhan: I do not think age is an excuse to wear a ski cap to your son-in-law's inauguration. But it does remind me of when Barbara Bush attended her son's inauguration and she pulled out one of those cheap plastic rain ponchos and slipped it over her head. Both of these ladies gave me a chuckle

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Arlington, Va.: What's happened to you, Robin? You've always been so delightfully snarky about everyone else? Why not Michelle Obama? Surely, you don't really think every dress she's worn to date have been that great. Maybe those two dresses yesterday were nice in person, but on TV they were pretty terrible. I am counting on some snark over the next four years!!

Robin Givhan: I do not dish out snark in a willy-nilly manner. I like to think I give compliments where they are due. And I really liked that swearing in ensemble. No fooolin'. And anyone who disagrees with me is just plain wrong. Just kidding, (sort of).

What has she worn that I've not liked...how about that red suit with the floppy sleeves? Or the wrinkled chinos? But sorry, I think she generally has good taste. or at least taste that is interesting.

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Anonymous: I hope Michele will consider wearing vintage some time too. She would look great in 1940'-'50's couture and it's the ultimate in green fashion and recycling.

Robin Givhan: It might be green but I don't want to see the first lady in someone else's old clothes.

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Washington, D.C.: Please, don't thing professional women who think J. Crew is expensive need to reevaluate. Spouse and I have -- I think -- very good jobs but after housing, health care, and other necessities there is just not money for J. Crew clothes. This isn't a complaint that someone who wears those clothes is extravagant -- just a plea that you understand that when women don't spend much on clothes it isn't intended to be disrespectful or sloppy, it's just an attempt to be financially responsible (which is also a good look).

Robin Givhan: Did not need to imply that non-J. Crew shoppers are spendthrifts. Just in the scheme of the industry, J. Crew should not be classified as expensive. How did I get trapped in this J. Crew vortex?

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Hat-land and queen Aretha: Can you please tell us more about Aretha's hat? I loved, loved, loved it. Great church hat! Please tell more.

Robin Givhan: I will be discussing Aretha's hat in tomorrow's paper. But let me just say right now: I (heart) that hat.

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Flats vs. Heels: Robin,

I want to respond to the people that have written on other WaPo chats about Michelle Obama's choice to wear flats on the campaign trail and more recently. She is doing this because she and her husband are about the same height. As someone whose husband is only slightly taller--I appreciate her situation. I wore the flatest shoes EVER for our wedding. It does not look cool when the woman is taller. That might work in Hollywood (whatever, who cares) but not in the rest of the country. I love heels and wear them when I am not near my husband and I would guess that Mrs. Obama does that also.

And while I am it--the people that write in that she is "old" (at 44--now 45) are crazy and jealous. I am a "white" 36 year old and I certainly dont think that 44 or 45 is old. She looks wonderful for her mid-forties. I think she looks about 40--maybe even 39.

Robin Givhan: I know you're being complimentary here, but it's sort of a backhanded compliment to say that she looks good "for her 40s" and that she looks like she's maybe even 39. How's about we just say that she looks good?

And I'd love to see her in some heels...I thought her Lincoln Memorial concert ensemble would have looked better with heels. So what if she's taller than her husband. I think his ego can handle it.

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Arlington, Va.: Did Michelle hire a stylist to help her cull sketches and dresses ahead of time? Do we have any idea who she is?

Robin Givhan: She works with the owner of one of her favored shops in Chicago, Ikram.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Hi Robin -- I saw you on NBC last night. You looked great! I think Mrs. Obama is lovely and carries off clothes that short little me could not get away with. I like her classic style with modern flair. I do have one question: I loved the outfit she wore to the swearing in, but always have thought there was a rule about -- for lack of a better description -- wearing rhinestones during the day. Would you touch on this, please? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Video: Robin talks with NBC's Brian Williams. (hulu.com)

Robin Givhan: I now have a modest crush on Brian Williams...he's so news anchory.

There used to be a distinct line between day and evening, and sparkles were reserved for evening. But that got thrown out when the fashion industry tossed out all the old rules. You can sparkle during the day. It's allowed. Frankly, I recommend it.

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Alexandria, Va.: You described Michelle's outfit as gold, but, to me, it's a yellow green. Or lemon lime. Or the color of a margarita. Her glove are definitely green.

What do you think? Gold or green?

Robin Givhan: The dress was officially called lemongrass by the designer. I leave it to you to decide whether that is closer to lemon-lime or the color of a margarita (with or without Cointreau?)

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Robin Givhan: Thanks for all the questions and comments! It was a pleasure.

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