First lady Michelle Obama is a known admirer of designer Michael Kors, having chosen his sleek black sheath for her official White House portrait. So it was no surprise that she would choose a look from one of his collections for Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
But it is surprising that she’d wear a suit on such a politically-charged occasion. She rarely ever does.
It was for other distracting reasons that the selection made tongues wag — at least among those who spend their Sunday evenings watching CBS’s “The Good Wife.” The ensemble, a salt and pepper tweed skirt and matching jacket with an industrial-style zipper and a wide portrait collar, was from Kors’ fall 2013 ready-to-wear collection — albeit with a few alterations from the way it appeared on the runway: No black belt. No thigh-high slit in the skirt.
The same suit was worn by actress Julianna Margulies in her role as the cuckolded wife-turned legal dynamo Alicia Florrick. This pop culture connection suggests that the costumers on “The Good Wife” know a thing or two about what powerful women might realistically wear, particularly those who live their professional lives in the realm of politics and the law. It also serves as a reminder that the first lady is still, at least sometimes, opting for the regular-route in putting together her public wardrobe. That is, she’s still selecting garments from the realm of contemporary fashion, those clothes that are available to any woman with a decent bank account. And so it isn’t so shocking that the public would see these déjà vu moments. Her day-to-day clothes are not rarified or one-of-a-kind even though they may be expensive and somewhat altered to her specifications.
Whether it was J. Crew or Kors, the clothes didn’t look like they were vetted by a cast of political consultants. From the beginning, that was one of the aspects of her style that was so distinctive. Her clothes looked real, relatable. They still do. Even TV thinks so.
“The Good Wife” debuted on CBS in September 2009. And slowly, the look of Alicia Florrick has evolved from tentative, apologetic political spouse to a strong and outspoken (grudging) politician in her own right. The first lady wasn’t channeling a television character; a TV character reflects the evolving way in which a woman’s wardrobe can speak of power. And that’s an evolution over which Obama has wielded significant influence.
More important is that this is the first time Obama has worn an actual suit to the State of the Union. In the past, she has chosen a dress, sometimes sleek and sleeveless, sometimes accompanied by a jaunty cardigan, sometimes with a puffy, girlish skirt. While Obama would still occasionally wear a suit — even a Kors one — mostly she has made the dress her uniform. It has been a way of always looking polished and poised, while diminishing memories of her as the corporate lawyer on the campaign trail — a suited-up persona, both literally and figuratively, that unnerved no small number of people. Her tendency to wear dresses also paralleled the fashion industry’s push to get more women into them — a silhouette that many designers envisioned as the new emblem of power. It was a win for both Seventh Avenue and the East Wing.
But seeing the first lady in a suit — a strong one with quite the sartorial flourish, rather than a demure luncheon suit with pearls and iridescence — was a bit like recalling the pre-White House Michelle Obama. It was a glimpse of the self-aware, tough-minded, straight-talking lawyer who took a brief hiatus from the public eye. This time out, the audience reaction was more welcoming.