Obama pulled out the Balenciaga for her appearance at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the final stop of part one of her book tour for “Becoming.” She was interviewed by actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who, alongside the statuesque Mrs. Obama in her head-to-toe gilding, looked like an elfin wallflower in an eggplant-colored sequined dress.
To get a few stats out of the way: Obama’s dress is from the brand’s spring 2019 collection. The boots are from spring 2018. Both are very, very expensive. Together, they represent the transformation of Balenciaga, a storied Paris-based fashion house, under creative director Demna Gvasalia, who has used the runway to upend traditional notions of beauty, luxury and gender in the 21st century. Gvasalia arrived at Balenciaga in 2016 and subsequently put bags inspired by Ikea’s nylon totes on his runway. He gave us giant-soled sneakers and oversized parkas. His catwalk models are typically unglamorous, plain, even a bit homely. He asked his audience to rethink who and what we value as important, influential and precious.
The Georgian-born Gvasalia is a designer with something to say beyond the boundaries of hemlines and color palettes, and so it’s not terribly surprising that his clothes would be worn by a former first lady who has a history of making thoughtful fashion choices that have highlighted the work of women, immigrants, people of color and others who often feel left out or overlooked.
But this particular selection also comes across as an exclamation point on the aesthetic message Obama has been delivering since she embarked on her stadium tour this year: The role of first lady was a chapter in her life, not the entirety of it. On the road, she has stepped away from the signature sheaths and the ladylike dresses that dominated her wardrobe during her time in the White House. In this new phase, she has been wearing more trousers, more pantsuits and the kind of outré fashion that would have caused heart palpitations among the Washington establishment as well as much of the citizenry.
Was the ensemble appropriate? Sure. Obama’s book tour is the equivalent of a literary rock concert, so she dressed the part of a rock star — transforming two relatively low-key looks on the runway into one eye-popping sparkle-fest. As a stage costume, it’s a look that can resonate through a stadium, all the way back to the cheap seats. And certainly, Obama looks pleased with her fashion choice.
Whether the ensemble is flattering is beside the point. Taste is subjective, and what might be one person’s glamazon coup is another’s ostentatious faux pas. However, she is no longer representing anyone other than herself. Her fans may admire her and look up to her, and she may choose to take that to heart. But she is no longer the unpaid representative of the state. She can wear whatever she likes, and her champions, more than likely, will love her all the more.
And her critics? Well, she’ll let them go low while she goes haute couture.
In her recent appearances and interviews, she has talked a lot about authenticity and how she was the same person behind the scenes as she was onstage. And early on, she talked about enjoying fashion and taking delight in it. But the reality is that there are limits to just how much truth people want from the occupants of the White House. They want a picture of understandable elegance — aspirational, but not beyond the average person’s wildest dreams. One can’t help but recall the Comme des Garçons dress that then-social secretary Desirée Rogers wore to the Obamas’ first state dinner. It was a striking dress, and it oozed fashion savvy, but it also spoke at an aesthetic pitch that left most people tilting their heads in curiosity and suspicion rather than admiration.
It’s not a bad thing to challenge people’s expectations, though, and Obama’s post-White House wardrobe — particularly this ensemble — raises several questions: Is a former first lady able to be something else, or is she always anchored to that role? Can she detach her celebrity from the East Wing and just be a free-floating famous person with an independent agenda?
Used with skill, fashion can help craft a public image that is magnetic. It’s akin to having your own personal spotlight or an ever-present drumroll. Fashion announces one’s relevance in the popular imagination — not just in the history books. It transforms a famous person into a celebrity, which carries greater value in the broader culture.
There was a time when Mrs. Obama — or at least her East Wing staff — chafed at the designation “celebrity.” Now, she is wrapping herself in its warm embrace. The Balenciaga ensemble was irresistible social media bait. It was the kind of choice celebrities make to keep their fans entertained, to help the old songs feel fresh, to make each tour stop feel special. To get people talking.
This Balenciaga fashion moment wasn’t out of character for a former first lady who is cultivating her place in the celebrity firmament. It wasn’t out of character for a woman who loves fashion. And it was utterly fitting for a book tour that includes $3,000 tickets and commemorative merchandise. Is it flattering? It doesn’t really matter.