The Washington Post

Michelle Obama’s Diplomatic Style

US first lady Michelle Obama holds a bouquet of flowers as daughters Malia(R) and Sasha, are draped in blankets given to them upon landing in Pretoria en route to Johannesburg, South Africa, as they begin their week long trip to Africa on June 20, 2011. (CHARLES DHARAPAK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

When that jet lands on foreign soil though, Obama’s sartorial choices are carefully crafted, a mix of her favorite designers—Naeem Khan, Rachel Roy, Narciso Rodriguez—and those that represent the heritage of the country that she’s visiting. Such attention to national pride is a shift for Obama, a sort of style diplomacy that she didn’t practice in the early J. Crew days of her husband’s presidency. These discreet nods to up-and-coming international unknowns have become more apparent with each tour she takes.

(Michelle Obama reacts to a student’s question at University of Cape Town. (MIKE HUTCHINGS / Reuters))

In Africa, Obama has already showcased three pieces with ties to the continent. On Thursday, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Obama wore a geometric print top by Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu. When she touched down in Pretoria, South Africa, she wore a black and orange print blazer by the same designer with black slacks. The outfit seemed dated and strayed from Obama’s typical silhouette, but it served its diplomatic purpose. In Johannesburg, she continued to don unfamiliar designers, wearing a sleeveless print top by ASOS Africa, a fair-trade company that donates some of its proceeds to underprivileged communities.

US President Barack Obama (L) poses with US First Lady Michelle Obama in the Music Room of Buckingham Palace ahead of a State Banquet on May 24, 2011 in London, England. (-/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

During a visit to Latin America in March, Obama wore a chartreuse blouse and white slacks by Chilean-born designer Maria Cornejo during a visit to Santiago. Even Obama’s biggest style faux pas involved a silent signal to China when she wore a scarlet silk Alexander McQueen ball gown to a state dinner honoring President Hu Jintao. American designers criticized her choice, but the color was an obvious nod to the hue that symbolizes good fortune and national pride in Chinese culture.

(Michelle Obama wears ASOS Africa and J. Crew in South Africa. (Charles Dharapak / AP))

Her newfound diplomatic dressing suggests that Obama’s sartorial tastes are, perhaps, becoming a small part of her broader work as a cultural ambassador. Is she now using fashion as a platform for a larger message? Is her changing wardrobe the work of a skilled sartorial adviser?

Obama’s taste has evolved since her husband entered office, and her wardrobe has become higher-end since the White House acknowledged Meredith Koop, 29, to be Obama’s style adviser. Obama is now wearing Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Prabal Gurung and even Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s The Row, a label so exclusive and avant-garde it’s only sold at one boutique in Washington. The Post’s Jason Horowitz noted that Koop is broadening Obama’s style horizons to include up-and-comers, but it’s possible that Koop is also steering Obama towards fashions and designers that make silent diplomatic statements. It appears Obama’s closet is becoming more than just a symbol of taste.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.


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