Michelle Obama: First Lady of American fashion

The thoughtful elegance with which Michelle Obama built her identity as the first African-American First Lady was US’s most important fashion moment of the last eight years


Michelle Obama (2nd left) in an Atelier Versace gown at the Obamas’ final White House state dinner. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Michelle Obama (2nd left) in an Atelier Versace gown at the Obamas’ final White House state dinner. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

In the coming together of a sleeveless tea dress or a strapless gown, an athletically worked out body, glistening ebony skin, bangs on the forehead, pointy pumps and a meaningful smile lives the legacy of the appearance of Michelle Obama. Legacy is a colossal term. A jumble of appearance descriptions—dress, shoes, hair, body—are never enough, nor even just, in our times when identity is our best sheath.

The thoughtful elegance with which Michelle wrapped her identity as the first African-American First Lady around her was America’s most important fashion moment of the last eight years. Her persona became more compelling than her clothes, which were well-chosen but not always spellbinding. She towered because of her dignity not her dash, her awe-inspiring height, her form chiseled to enviable fitness. Her dresses, gowns or shoes, even when they were not the best pieces in recent fashion, became a sight to watch for the way she wore them with chutzpah.

Some, including the Narciso Rodriguez dress she wore on Election night in 2008 should definitely not go on the list of Michelle’s memorable fashion outings. In fact, that red and black dress prompted feminist writer Germaine Greer to write an acerbic piece in a November 2008 Guardian article, aptly titled “If Michelle’s such a great dresser, what was she doing in this red butcher’s apron?”

But Lady O quickly side-stepped effortful trendiness to jog into her own style zone. Fashion became second fiddle as Michelle got stamped as a First Lady who exuded the vibe of a smiling, secure woman, a person who “understood”, who cared. That’s an enviable moment in a fashionable person’s life who grows into her own skein. The country “was waiting for that kind of First Lady” as the American Vogue rightly worded it when it first put Michelle on its cover in March 2009.

Michelle Obama (in yellow) with Ho Ching, wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Michelle Obama (in yellow) with Ho Ching, wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

When Vogue put her on the cover for the second time in 2013 in a Reed Krakoff sheath dress photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Michelle stood tall as the symbol of American fashion. She had walked past the most stunning actresses on the Oscar red carpet, the creatively crafted celebrities who waft up the steps to the annual Met Ball in New York and even suave fashionistas like designer Marc Jacobs who style people and fashion films.

In eight years, Michelle was featured on more than 20 magazine covers from Vogue to Better Homes and Gardens, Redbook to Ebony and Time as well as the most recent edition of New York TimesStyle magazine where a piece on “The Greats” celebrates her as one of the most influential women of the current era. Throughout, she held her own on Best Dressed lists, with fashion websites creating special slideshows on her gowns and getups.

As she ascended and descended Air Force One, hosted state dinners, appeared at the world’s most photographed political events firmly holding the hand of her husband, Michelle’s Naeem Khan gowns accessorizing her famously toned arms, her lady like frocks, her nude lipsticks and even her pants when she occasionally wore them made news. The First Lady never carried an IT bag, seldom wore a typical LBD despite turning out in black numbers that evaded the LBD stereotype but made the point about sophistication. She made high street fashion elite in Washington and gave kitten heels the jab of stilettos.

Michelle Obama made high street fashion elite in Washington and gave kitten heels the jab of stilettos. Photo: Darren Staples/Reuters
Michelle Obama made high street fashion elite in Washington and gave kitten heels the jab of stilettos. Photo: Darren Staples/Reuters

It is November 2016. A new American President, hopefully a woman in pantsuits, stands poised to preside over the White House, challenging, not only the gender of the world’s most coveted leadership role but also sending out on a vacation, the concept of the “First Lady of the United States”. Sienna College Research Institute that has been conducting polls on the popularity of American First Ladies since 1982, released its latest findings last Saturday in which Eleanor Roosevelt continues to be the “greatest” as they call her. Michelle stands fifth.

She is no Jackie Kennedy in her style, and Roosevelt’s persistent pursuit of human rights certainly don’t define her ideology. Yet. But if these polls continue, Michelle may take over Jackie soon. You know why? Because style itself is no longer enough to be stylish or influential. It needs something else. Michelle has that “else”.

A fortnight back, when she stood next to President Barack Obama at their final White House state dinner in a shimmering gold Atelier Versace gown, her hair straight and sleek, head held high, she may have told the world why care and cause are such a lethal combination. Just what American fashion needs right now.

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