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Michelle Obama didn’t like to discuss her clothes, but they spoke volumes

At the Hay-Adams this fall, members of Washington's diplomatic community gathered inside the historic hotel's glass-walled loft, with its postcard views of the White House, for a conversation about fashion. About clothes and their place on the world stage. The program, hosted by the State Department and Elle magazine, included a panel discussion, in which I was invited to participate, that featured designer Derek Lam. When the conversation came around to first lady Michelle Obama — because how could it not? — Lam dropped his head in a mournful manner and lamented: Her departure from the East Wing signaled the end of a singular era for American fashion.

During her tenure, Obama brought widespread attention to Seventh Avenue. She energized designers, editors and stylists with her fashion-forward wardrobe choices. She made industry insiders stand taller both at home and abroad. She’s been an exemplar of modern, fit and confident middle age. She instilled pride and kinship among countless black women.

And she has been the most high-profile cheerleader for the sleeveless sheath as the 21st-century power uniform. “It’s been accepted everywhere,” says designer Maria Pinto, who created many of Obama’s 2008 campaign dresses, including the purple sheath she wore when she fist-bumped the presumptive Democratic nominee. “You don’t have to be in a suit. There’s other ways to get that power look.”

Lam is among the many Seventh Avenue designers whose clothes have been part of the first lady’s public wardrobe and whose life story has been fundamental to her version of fashion diplomacy. Obama wore Lam’s block-printed dress for her arrival in Beijing in March 2014. The black dress, with a geometric pattern in ivory and taupe, was contemporary in its design, sophisticated and sleek. But there was more: Lam, who grew up in San Francisco, is of Chinese descent. In wearing his design, Obama quietly noted that in addition to trade agreements and intellectual property concerns, there is a very real, human connection between the United States and China.

For the Obamas’ first state dinner, in honor of India, she wore a white strapless gown by the Indian American designer Naeem Khan. In 2011, she donned an array of British brands — Preen, Roksanda — for a visit to London. But for the grand occasion of a state dinner at Buckingham Palace, Obama wore a regal white gown and long white gloves by an American designer, Tom Ford — but one with deep business roots in London, where he also maintains a home.

She wore a flowing violet gown by Japan-born designer Tadashi Shoji, whose business is based in Los Angeles, to a state dinner in honor of Japan, a dress by Korean American designer Doo-Ri Chung for the South Korea state dinner and a student-designed frock to a White House education workshop on careers in the fashion industry. Her fashion choices served as a grace note to the moment.

Her clothes were unexpected: a cardigan to meet Queen Elizabeth II. They spoke of Hollywood glamour: a Vera Wang mermaid gown at the China state dinner. They evoked Everywoman: hiking shorts at the Grand Canyon. The pictures are captivating. But are they the totality of her fashion legacy?

When Obama leaves the White House in January, what precisely will she leave behind besides multiple covers of Vogue and an impressive array of evening gowns destined for a presidential library?

Michelle Obama’s state dinner style

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama pose for pictures with visiting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini, left, upon arrival for a State Dinner at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Obama was good for fashion. Mostly because she got people talking about it. But look closely and see that the bright light she shone on fashion also revealed the challenges of a business that traffics in glamour and fantasy. Her midmarket wardrobe choices sparked sales. But her attentions could not save those same brands from the financial pressures of a recession or overexpansion.

She underscored how most fashion companies are entrepreneurial endeavors, not big publicly traded corporations; they are the very definition of small businesses. She thrust once little-known brands — Jason Wu, Brandon Maxwell, Azede Jean-Pierre, Narciso Rodriguez, Maria Cornejo, Pinto — into the spotlight, giving them priceless publicity and a leg up in expanding their business. But press notices cannot form the foundation of a company.

She helped young people see that fashion is more than catwalk extravaganzas and "Project Runway." In October 2014, she brought fashion designers to the White House as part of her education initiative Reach Higher.

And she connected fashion to the broader popular culture.

“Fashion is really about passion and creativity, just like music or dance or poetry,” Obama said during her welcome to students. “For so many people across the country, it is a calling; it is a career. It’s the way they feed their families.”

A good portion of the population has always been stubbornly committed to the idea that clothes don’t matter and to give them more than a moment’s consideration is evidence of superficiality, snobbishness or weak character. But dressing with consideration and care is part of the social contract. It is part of what makes a civil society.

Clothes are part of the ritual of weddings, funerals, coming-of-age celebrations, faith-based rites of passage. Our choice of attire is a measure of our respect for those around us and our own personal dignity. And in the largely symbolic role of first lady, Obama turned fashion into an especially eloquent form of communication.

She made people anticipate fashion, notice it, parse it and wonder about the folks who made it. The conversation mainly focused on aesthetics and authorship. Fashion in the Obama administration was not a source of scandal or ethics investigations, as it was during the Reagan era when the first lady was taken to task for borrowing and not returning designer fare. Obama was buying her clothes, not the taxpayers. Her first inaugural gown, the white one with its single strap and romantic embroidery, is displayed at the National Museum of American History. Other gowns were stored at the National Archives until they were recently shipped to Chicago along with boxes of other Obama administration artifacts.

In countless state appearances, Michelle Obama highlighted the absolute best that Seventh Avenue had to offer, in the same way that one might expect the White House to offer the non plus ultra of American culinary skill at a state dinner, or present the most accomplished musicians at a concert.

Every now and then — mostly when asked — she spoke about her personal appreciation and affection for the American fashion industry. She joked about her devotion to Spanx, for example, or noted her love of glamour. Just recently, in Harper’s Bazaar, she expressed thanks to her longtime stylist, Meredith Koop. Still, as first lady she has not been especially forthcoming in discussing fashion. Her office declined a request for an interview on the subject.

Fashion is, perhaps, no longer a “third rail” topic for any woman who wants to be taken seriously, but it still isn’t broached with the same enthusiastic patriotism as, say, baseball or a March Madness bracket.

Even for a style-conscious first lady, her relationship to fashion is complicated.

Obama did not rely on a single designer as a de facto personal dressmaker, as had been the case with her most recent predecessors. Nancy Reagan favored the late James Galanos; Barbara Bush was a fan of Arnold Scaasi, and both Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton came to rely on Oscar de la Renta. Obama had no such loyalties.

The quiet defiance behind Nancy Reagan’s high-glamour fashion

When she first stepped onto the national stage, Obama, a Chicago native, relied heavily on the simple, sleeveless sheaths of hometown designer Maria Pinto. And once in the White House, certain designers became staples in her wardrobe — Khan, Rodriguez, Wu, Michael Kors, Tracy Reese. But she pulled from a wide range of collections — some of them quite esoteric, such as Thom Browne. Her fashion vocabulary was deep and rich.

The result was a wardrobe that spoke eloquently about an entire industry. No one brand defined her style. In that way, it was both uniquely her own and broadly American.

The country’s interest in Obama’s clothes began during the 2008 presidential campaign. The fascination increased once she became first lady, in part because she didn’t dress like the stereotypical Washington matron in boxy suits, nude pantyhose and sensible pumps. Her favorite accessory was a wide, embellished Azzedine Alaia belt that emphasized her hourglass figure. She did not wear pantyhose. She wore over-the-knee suede boots. She stood out, not because she was setting trends or even leading the charge in embracing those offered up by the fashion industry. She simply looked engaged with fashion. Her clothes were part of the fashion conversation. She looked modern.

The mainstream media, bloggers and Twitter celebrated her clothes, and as with any celebrity christened a style icon, Obama had the ability to spark a shopping frenzy. Women copied Mamie Eisenhower's bangs and Jackie Kennedy's bouffant, but companies such as J. Crew, the Gap and White House Black Market benefited from the culture's Obama obsession. One researcher tracked Obama's ability to create consumer demand and estimated the "Obama Effect" was worth $38 million to a company.

Still, while Obama could ignite a run on J. Crew cardigans and pencil skirts, one can’t ignore this reality: J. Crew has also been suffering financially. In the afterglow of the 2013 inauguration, sales have been spiraling downward. Company executives have attributed the decline to the quality of the merchandise and a fashion point-of-view that has been off the mark. Customers don’t want what J. Crew is selling despite its having one of the world’s biggest celebrities as a customer. The Gap has also been suffering financially.

There is also the case of Pinto, who garnered extraordinary attention thanks to Obama's patronage. Yet in 2010, Pinto closed her company and filed for bankruptcy. In 2013, she relaunched as M2057 under a new business model. "I don't believe in reinvention," Pinto says, "but evolution."

And consider Rodriguez, who designed the black-and-red dress Obama wore on election night in 2008 that appeared on front pages around the world. Even as Obama continued to wear his clothes, his business teetered on the edge of closing before it began to right itself in 2012 thanks to a reorganization.

Obama can turn a spotlight on a designer. But she has not been an antidote to a recession, overextended finances, bad luck or poor choices. No one could be. That was not her intent.

As much as Obama’s clothes have been rich with symbolism, the East Wing has been loath to discuss the thought that goes into her fashion choices. Her office rarely announced, confirmed or mentioned the designer of her attire except for occasions of historical significance, such as inaugurations or state dinners. But even then, the statement was hardly more than a single sentence, with the sparest details about the dress and the designer.

For the Italy state dinner, the White House noted: “Tonight, Mrs. Obama is wearing a floor length, rose gold chainmail gown designed by Atelier Versace.”

A confidential transition memo from July 2008, released by WikiLeaks, offered advice on handling public interest in the new first lady’s wardrobe: “Former First Ladies’ Chiefs of Staff recommend throwing a bone to the press and public — show the inaugural gown or at least disclose the designer; answer questions about hair styles. ... In other words, fulfill the public’s fascination with celebrity and the mystique of the White House — most of it will die down as the Administration progresses.”

Her staff did not follow that advice, not even for inaugural gowns. In contrast, Laura Bush previewed sketches of her dress and Hillary Clinton announced that Oscar de la Renta would be her designer of choice.

Details of Obama’s fashion selections were typically shared by flattered designers who took to social media, an observant reporter who managed to identify the garment from a runway collection or a savvy publicist who trumpeted the news.

Obama didn’t dress and tell. But she offered the public something more than silk and satin to consider.

What was it about Obama's clothes that kept people talking? What made critics roar over her bare arms when she wore a sleeveless, eggplant-colored Narciso Rodriguez dress to her husband's first address to Congress? Obama was not the first presidential spouse to go sleeveless in the Capitol. Jackie Kennedy had done so decades earlier. But Kennedy was not a statuesque black woman with muscular arms. The fascination with Obama's style has not simply been about the clothes, but the body in them.

A lot of people had never seen a black woman so confidently glamorous — one who had not won an Oscar or a Grammy or spent her professional life raising Cain on reality television. Obama was not model-thin; she wasn’t an ingenue. She was a grown-up with an impressive résumé staking her claim on fashion. She was a unicorn on the political circuit.

And she was strong. Folks could literally see her strength in her arms. A small industry developed around them, with more than a few personal trainers declaring they knew the secret to sculpted triceps. Obama began a rewrite of what a strong black woman looked like that had nothing to do with the Hollywood tropes of long-suffering maternal types, sassy broads or joyless uniformed functionaries.

There remain those who cling to stereotypes, who use racist imagery to describe her and who assess her body as if it were on an auction block. The rewrite is a work in progress.

It wasn’t that women like Obama didn’t already exist. They did. Her Chicago social circle was filled with women who shopped at the upper echelons of fashion, who saw vanity as a form of empowerment.

She was their representative on the world stage. And her wardrobe choices underscored a simple but often overlooked aspect of fashion: It should be a confidence-building pleasure, not a burden.

Other first ladies have expressed their gratitude to Seventh Avenue for keeping them looking tastefully appropriate or have been supportive of industry initiatives aimed at breast cancer research or the prevention of heart disease. Hillary Clinton recognized fashion's philanthropy as first lady. And back in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson hosted a White House fashion show to highlight American style and to juice the economy.

Obama engaged in a different, broader kind of conversation that was about the challenges and aesthetics of fashion and its role in the economy, in diplomacy and in our daily lives. Her clothes reflected fashion’s global reach and the reality that American designers come from all over the world. She spoke as much to fashion’s insiders as she did to everyone else.

Obama has done a lot toward normalizing our relationship with fashion. Still, the industry does not stand equally alongside other branches of popular culture. I don't know anything about fashion remains an acceptable answer from our leaders to a question about Seventh Avenue. But should it be? Shouldn't the occupant of the West Wing at least express curiosity and excitement about an industry that churns out some $350 billion in sales in this country?

It falls to the next residents of the White House — one of whom is a former model — to bring fashion fully into the fold. And doing so requires not just selecting a wardrobe that reflects occasion, personality and modernity, it means being willing to discuss it — maybe not in depth and certainly not ad nauseam, but with ease and thoughtfulness.

If an all-star baseball game can get a visit from the commander in chief, why not the opening of Fashion Week in New York? If we believe that personality traits can be gleaned from the way a politician plays basketball or golf, surely clothes can be just as evocative. And if it’s worth it to ask, “What’s on your summer reading list?” why not also inquire, “What’s new in your closet?”

The answer surely matters.

Robin Givhan is the fashion critic for The Washington Post. Email comments to
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