First lady Michelle Obama stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during President Obama’s second-term swearing-in, holding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s black leather Bible in her magenta-gloved hands. The smaller Lincoln Bible rested atop it. Michelle Obama said nothing during the hour-long inaugural ceremony. But in the sea of black topcoats and C-SPAN stodginess, she stood out — statuesque bearing, new bangs accentuating her cheekbones, and grooming attuned to both the history books and high-definition TV.
After rallying the country to fight childhood obesity, speaking about the value of mentoring and championing the contributions of military families, she was once again in the spot where she had stood four years ago: A silent symbol of an administration’s mood and manner, a template of patriotism, a standard-bearer for femininity.
Wearing a navy Thom Browne coat cut from custom-made jacquard and a coordinating dress, she was a more subdued, more reserved presence than in 2009. She had traded in the bright, idealistic sheen of the lemongrass Isabel Toledo ensemble for one that was structured, relatively spare and unadorned except for the black, bejeweled J. Crew belt she added after the morning’s prayer service.
And for the evening’s two inaugural balls, she chose a patriotic red chiffon and velvet gown that highlighted her shoulders with its spare neckline. It was created by Jason Wu, the same young New York-based designer she catapulted from near anonymity into a household name when he crafted her first inaugural gown.
It was a stately choice, thanks to its classic first lady hue. But it had sophisticated sex appeal and was a far cry from the idealistic sweetness exuded by Wu’s first gown, the ivory, embroidered dress now in the National Museum of American History.
In four years, her style had shifted from fizzy hope to glimmering grown-up pragmatism.
During the day, her clothes echoed her husband’s. The Thom Browne coat was created from tie silk and echoed his discreet blue neckwear. As expected, the president wore a sober black overcoat, dark suit and black gloves, with a tiny American flag pin dotting his lapel. Their daughters, Sasha and Malia, finished the family portrait wearing coats in shades of lilac and violet. The elegant silhouettes underscored their new maturity.
Still, the first lady’s clothes stand apart. Observers obsess about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe because it offers clues to the personality of a public woman — a historic woman — who remains a resolutely private person. In an era of televised confessionals, she has never laid herself bare. But thankfully, her clothes, with their quirks and eccentric embellishments, do not adhere to unwritten protocol or dowdy traditions that have so often left first ladies little more than beige cyphers.
For four years, Obama’s clothes have connected with the public in contemporary terms, in the language of Hollywood’s progressive glamour, Seventh Avenue’s bold entrepreneurship and the democracy of the mass market.
In the constant tug of war between style and substance, Obama has proved they can be one and the same.
More than any other first lady in history, Obama has pushed the American fashion industry into the international spotlight. With a global reach unlike any actor or musician — and an authenticity untouched by endorsement deals or fealty to a single brand — she carried the creative skills, the technical wizardry and the earnest ambitions of Seventh Avenue stalwarts and upstarts into Buckingham Palace, the center of the Holy See, the neighborhoods of Ghana and into fashion’s very heart of darkness . . . Paris.
Obama has celebrated a distinctly contemporary version of American style — a sensibility rooted in comfort and practicality, wholly removed from the Old World formality that still percolates within French fashion and apart from the flashy sex appeal and bella figura tailoring that are the twin pillars of Italian aesthetics.
In her embrace of fashion, Obama does not ask designers to adapt their sensibilities to her own desires. Instead, she — or her emissary — encourages their best efforts and, most often, they rise to the occasion. Reed Krakoff created the custom-made, ultramarine silk day dress and cashmere cardigan she wore to the private swearing-in Sunday. Crafted in Krakoff’s New York atelier, the ensemble acknowledged the first lady’s affection for a cardigan and an easy dress, but it was also an accurate reflection of the American designer’s sportswear roots.
Browne’s aesthetic is also born of American tradition, inspired by Ivy League tailoring, button-down shirts and varsity-letter cardigans. Browne made his reputation in menswear, launching his brand in 2001 with his shrunken, schoolboy suits. He’s a designer whose small business — and multiple side projects — speaks to the struggle and tenacity required to succeed in the fashion industry. Last year, Browne received a Cooper-Hewitt Design Award for his fashion and was feted at the White House, along with other winners, by the first lady.
Obama’s ability to bring a significant financial windfall to the many mass-market labels she wears has been documented by a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She is the first East Wing occupant to wield such economic clout in part because she lives in an age when a single image can be tweeted around the world.
Obama is a fashion icon — for all of the attention, discomfort and power that phrase might suggest. But she has been dogged by skepticism and disappointment that her work has not been substantive, that it has not been worthy of her educational pedigree. The fascination with her clothes has only fueled that debate.
But is substance being confused with controversy? Obama did not dive into the roiling seas of health-care reform as former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton did. But is tackling a pathology that threatens the life expectancy of generations of children any less significant?
Whether Obama will add a fourth or fifth item to her list of priorities is under discussion among her staff. “The first lady is exploring ways that she can make a real difference for Americans,” said Kristina Schake, Obama’s communications director, “not just for these next four years, but for years to come.”
Make no mistake; Obama would be loath to declare her interest in fashion a “priority.” And it is hard to imagine that she would willingly become the face of a campaign promoting this country’s $350 billion fashion industry. But style is a tool African American media use for pushing back against generations of stereotypes about black women.
As Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, noted, admiring words about the glossy images of a first-lady-lawyer-mother have become a near mantra in her home — repeated not to daughters, but to sons. Style is dignity, self-respect and confidence.
While Obama did not invent the sleeveless sheath, she gave it distinctive verve by pairing it with lean, sculpted arms. Those arms, which powered her through celebrity push-up competitions and surely must have hugged a million White House visitors, set her apart from the generation of women who preceded her into the White House. Obama revels in her athleticism, her physical fitness. Style is a synonym for health and vigor.
Indeed, Obama has done more than any other contemporary figure to normalize fashion — to move it from an outlier industry of flamboyant personalities and indecipherable verbiage to one that is discussed in the public domain with the same respectful tone applied to technology, architecture or even sports.
There is still a long way to go, of course. Cheating sports stars conjure up congressional hearings and require an interrogation by Oprah, while the fashion industry struggles to get limited trademark protections for its most unique designs. Professional women still feign fashion ineptitude as a sign of their workday gravitas.
But by giving style a prominent place in her public life, even when standing silently on a cold January day, Obama remains both eloquent and significant.
Givhan is a freelance writer.