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So, Barack Obama was sworn into office, he took his oath and his speech made history and blah, blah, blah. All that was nice but then we get to the real issue; Who will Michelle Obama be wearing, day and night? I mean this was the crux of the matter really. Forget that it was a historic day in America, forget that it was the second inauguration of the first Black President of the United States, only the 17th democrat in the history of the constitution to do so, forget that it was MLK Day. Forget ALL of that; the real issue was the dress. The designer who would be catapulted to global fame and the aftermath for the fashion books. Fashion history to be made. That was what the day was really all about.
Why all the fuss?
Michelle Obama is important to fashion bankability that much is a known fact; Prof David Yermack in his Harvard Business Review study estimated the value of the FLOTUS to the fashion Industry to be around $2.7 billion. And she has the power to make a designer’s career; she catapulted Jason Wu into a household name at the first inauguration and he will forever be significant in American fashion history. Over the years Michelle Obama has served as first lady, the world has watched her every stylish step taken, almost to the point of obsession. So much so, the work she does is often at the peril of such obsession. We don’t readily remember the details of her scheme to eradicate childhood obesity or how she advocates for support of military families, but we easily remember that she wore Narciso Rodriguez in 2009 on the night Barack Obama won the election or that beautiful McQueen dress she wore to meet Chinese emissaries that caused such a kerfuffle. Her style transcends everything else. Not by her choice but simply by our misplaced adulation. And that’s just fine. Sometimes.
The same way we have obsessed about her bangs. I mean SHE GOT BANGS! (Insert Legally Blonde moment here). Fast forward 4 years later and its all change. On this cold January day, in 2013 we saw a different Michelle Obama to the new First Lady we met in 2009. Style-wise. There was the new hair do and then there was the new aesthetic. Where 2009 saw the bright, peppy-prep dress suit ensemble by Isabel Toledo, 2013 was more subtle but solid with Thom Browne, a traditionally menswear designer known for his constructive tailoring and structure. Browne is new to Womenswear so this was such a high note for him and such a perfect choice for her. It oozed sensibility and comfort and something about it smacked of stylish confidence. It wasn’t showy, it was reserved; Navy Blue and structured, with clean lines and little fuss, made from a traditionally menswear tie material. Where 2009 was an optimistic mood, with history being made and all, 2013 was a pragmatic and realistic choice; the work continues. But no less optimistic in attitude.
And then came the evening. The excitement was palpable on social media. We waited and waited and freaked out and speculated on just what and who the first lady was going to wear. I hoped it would be a female designer, American certainly and someone young and fresh who had a promising career ahead of them. She set this tone with Thom Browne in the day so I hoped it would continue on and some lucky, young and promising designer would get a look in. I was one of the mad freaks. I went through the style.com rolodex of designers to see who it could possibly be and made a list that changed with every tweet. Just go through my timeline and you’ll see just how obsessed I was about the big reveal. I mean it was 3am in London and I was still up, watching on both my laptop and TV, whoever revealed it first. We waited…and waited…and waited…OH MY GOD WHERE IS THE DRESS?!! Then came time for the reveal; hold your breath; ta da! Ruby, long, chiffon and velvet with a duchess satin belt at the nipped in waist. The silhouette was similar to the dress she wore in 2009 only with a more sensual appeal, the colour, the high neck and cut out shoulder and the deep V cut back. I love the ease of the look, comfort and style, two things that we struggle to marry in fashion, she fused so well, so perfectly. It was youthful and fresh and with those bangs, it worked.
BUT WHO WAS THE DESIGNER?!! We were dying to know. I wondered if they were asleep and hadn’t seen their dress on the first lady. I mean what designer was asleep in that most pivotal moment of their career? 3am in London and I don’t think any British Designer was asleep. We waited and waited and then BOOM it was revealed; Jason Wu.
The love for the dress was quickly replaced by flabbergast to the choice of the designer. I was one of the flabbergasted ones. The First Lady looked gorgeous in the dress, it was a beautiful dress that evoked her sense of style to a T and showed off her banging physique. BUT, and hear me out, I do wish it was from a different designer. Some argue it was a thing of comfort; why go with someone else when you can stick to what you know. If it ain’t broke sorta thing…I get that. I really do, still, I wanted it to be someone else. Wu had his turn in 2009, it would have been nice to see another comer in 2013 get a shot. But it is what it is and it was a lovely, lovely dress. A more sophisticated option to the one in 2009 so, good on him.
The fuss about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe choice goes beyond the choice of designer, its the impact it will have on said designer’s career for one and the Fashion Industry at large for another. She is a dress seller, when she wears something, it sells out, like the deep berry J.Crew gloves she wore in the daytime. And she has been known to favour more obscure and emerging talents than mainstream. And then are the J.Crews and Gaps etc. Her wardrobe choice gives us an inkling to her personality, looking from the outside in. The obsesson gives us a glimpse into her life personally, a woman the world knows but doesn’t know. And what better than a sense of style to really tell about a person’s character. She gives a bit of herself but never, ever everything so through her unique style we feel as if we know a little bit more of her. And damnit if Michelle’s wearig something I want to wear it. She is a style influencer, a marked difference to the conservative conformity of former first ladies who tended towards more established and great American designers as opposed to the little guys. She has projected the fashion industry into an arena where we can no longer think in terms of just style but there is a practicality married into it. She has planted the American fashion industry firmly in the ground, not that it was ever moving, but Michelle Obama wearing an American designer solidified the American Fashion Industry with her allegiance. And she has done so wearing a plethora of brands; Duro Olowu, Micheal Kors, J.Crew, Oscar de la Renta etc. She does for the industry what no popstar or reality TV upstart can ever do. She has infused the WASPy style of the past to the contemporary nature of the present and given it her own unique twist and let’s not forget her love for cardigans, the woman can work a cardigan like no other. This is the All-American style and she sells it to the world.
Because of Michelle Obama, fashion does not feel so scary and sacred, it has become attainable and style, a prerequisite for living well not just looking the part. She has removed this guarded barrier that closed the industry within itself and made it one that we all talk about and dissect so freely especially in the age of social media where anything goes. Her sense of style is not overt or grandiose, it reflects the mood of times and situation, the same way she wears a pair of white capri pants, jogging in Regent’s Park during the summer olympics at the launch of Let’s Move, is the same way she wears a slinky Micheal Kors dress or a beautiful McQueen evening gown. With grace and elegance and as a result it has made us all want to reach for such levels of grace and elegance.
And whilst it doesn’t erode the fact that her husband’s second term is fraught with battles of partisan politics, a shakey economy, a battle to gain the confidence of the nation and all the other political shenanigans on the Capitol, her style serves and will serve as a powerful symbol for several generations to come. When we talk about Michelle Obama, whether its about her work during her term as first lady; to help eradicate childhood obesity, the speeches she gave in support of her husband’s campaign, her achievement prior to her husband’s presidency or the many press up challenges she won… we will always, always talk about her style, her grace and the unending poise she carried it with. And not to forget the billions of dollars made for the Fashion Industry, especially the American Fashion Industry. Kerching!
Sketch Image; CNN © Alina Cho.