Why What The First Lady Wears Counts As Much As A Winning Manifesto

Whoever succeeds as #FLOTUS - if there's style shoes worth stepping into, it's Michelle Obama's.



From Dolley Madison to Nancy Regan, Jackie Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, the public has long looked to the First Lady as a fashion and style inspiration (granted, some more than others). The role of First Lady brings with it all the modern trappings of celebrity status including the extreme public scrutiny that goes with the territory – a scrutiny most apparent when it comes to what she wears.

As current First Lady Melania Trump has discovered, making a bad decision about what to wear and, most importantly, when to wear it, can have a disastrous impact upon public opinion regarding the administration. From culturally-inappropriate garment choices to items that suggest a blissful ignorance regarding the situations in hand, Melania’s First Lady style has highlighted flaws frequently displayed by President Donald Trump himself.

With Melania poised to continue her role as First Lady should the Republicans win the election, and Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, waiting in the wings if the Democrats snatch the vote, as the world becomes more complicated and desperate for reform, if ever there was a First Lady to take style tips from, it’s Michelle Obama.

Behind Closed Doors

In Netflix documentary, Becoming, which is based on Michelle’s best-selling memoir of the same name, we’re offered a rare insight into the life of one of the most admired First Ladies of all time. Thrust into the limelight as her husband became President, Michelle Obama embraced the position and made it her own. Well aware of the role that public perception and therefore image plays in politics, Michelle acknowledged the exceptional importance of fashion, addressing the inherent tensions in contemporary society between appearances (particularly for women) and ability, explaining, ”Fashion for a woman predominates how people view you. That’s not right, but it’s true”.

Fashion as a Tool of Empowerment

In recognition of the power of fashion, Michelle took what some may view as a symbol of female subservience, and transformed it into a tool of empowerment. Her White House wardrobe was far more than a fashion statement – each carefully curated outfit served to communicate the values she held most dear. From youth empowerment and education reform to minority rights, amongst more subtle political messages, there was always meaning in what Michelle wore as the First Lady. Her elegant, classic and confident wardrobe choices were, and continue to be, a means to express her most authentic self and reflect her beliefs.

Nurturing New Talent

Michelle’s decision to endorse up-and-coming designers was a means to this end. Among the most notable of her choices included wearing a white, one-shoulder gown by the then unknown designer, Jason Wu, to her husband’s 2009 presidential inauguration. Chosen to symbolize hope and new beginnings of the Obama administration, the young Taiwanese-Canadian was catapulted to the global fashion stage with Michelle’s endorsement. She later wore some more formal Wu designs to her first meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, showing deference to the British Royal family; and another Wu piece for the second Presidential inauguration in 2013 – this time a red chiffon and velvet gown that exuded the kind of confidence perfectly matching the calibre of the woman wearing it. Aside from Jason Wu, Michelle’s style prowess also helped to launch the careers of other lesser-known designers, including Tracy Reese, Thakoon and Sophie Theallet, all of whom have gone on to carve out successful careers in the fashion industry.

Style That Makes Statements

Michelle’s choices were often subtlety and cleverly politically suggestive. By wearing Derek Lam for an official trip to Bejing, and Naeem Khan to a state dinner held in honour of India, the First Lady’s wardrobe emphasized the cross-culture connections between the US, China and India respectively. On other occasions, she celebrated home-grown designers in support of her fellow citizens. According to research, these were incredibly valuable decisions, creating $2.7 billion in profits for 29 brands, just by wearing their clothes.

Celebrating High-Street Fashion

Yet her wardrobe didn’t just consist of designer clothing alone. A fan of affordable retail brands like Target and J. Crew, Michelle also endorsed accessible fashion. Often appearing in the latter brand’s ballet flats, slim skirts, accessories and cardigans, she exhibited a more down-to-earth style that resonated with the everyday woman. Ahead of the 2008 Presidential election, and following a news story that revealed Vice President hopeful Sarah Palin’s campaign wardrobe had cost an eye-watering $150,000, Michelle appeared on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, wearing head-to-toe J. Crew, with each piece retailing at less than $200.

A Style Signature

From endorsing little-known designers to championing high-street brands when it suited her, Michelle’s style is rooted in doing what feels right to her. Voted best dressed by numerous glossy magazines and praised for her elegance and quietly confident looks, Michelle is a prime example of how powerful a woman’s sense of style can be in articulating exactly who she is. Note the use of the word ‘style’ over ‘fashion’ here. Fashion is about what the industry tells us to wear because it’s on-trend. But style is so, so much more than that. It embodies the expression of your unique self, your belief system and your values – and how Michelle chose to dress herself exemplifies this beautifully.

One of her signature wardrobe pieces was the bold sleeveless shift, which highlighted her famously well-toned arms, athleticism and self-confidence. Amongst the most popular of these was a rose and silver-grey dress created by African-American designer, Tracy Reese, worn on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina in 2012. Now on display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the dress symbolises Michelle’s finely-attuned cultural sensitivities and her unending support of women of colour.

With a Little Help from Her Stylist

Behind the scenes, stylist Meredith Koop was tasked with dressing Michelle in her role as the First Lady. Becoming emphasizes the challenges Koop faced, ensuring that Michelle’s appearance was always appropriate to the occasion. Each outfit choice was a calculated decision and emblematic of the values held dear to Michelle – never over-the-top and always pragmatic. Whilst this meant Koop worked with a consistent stream of restrictions. Michelle was widely recognised as a modern style icon – which clearly demonstrates her stylist’s success in this enormously sensitive job.

The Tour Wardrobe

Continuing their working relationship after the Obamas left the White House, the values built by Michelle and Meredith’s style choices have defined the former First Lady. Challenging conventional fashion norms, the pair have pushed boundaries they were previously unable to during the years Michelle’s husband Barack was in office. Promoting her book on tour In Paris, Michelle appeared in a striped silk pyjama suit by Serbian-born designer Roksanda. A fun and playful look that previously could not have been worn on a public engagement, it spoke to the authenticity and friendliness that Michelle exudes. Further highlighting her cultural awareness, the pair celebrated local designers depending on the countries they visited on the tour, from Stella McCartney as the designer of choice in London to Danish label Stine Goya in Copenhagen.

Fashion Fades…Style Is Eternal

What Michelle Obama demonstrates in Becoming is the thought and consideration that goes into each of her outfits – and the far-reaching messages every one of them conveys. Rather than viewing fashion as an additional burden placed upon women, Michelle uses it to communicate who she is, and most importantly of all, her ideals. For us mere mortals, for better or worse, our choice in clothing will never be subject to the same intense scrutiny that someone of Michelle’s standing will. Nonetheless, our choices are still valuable, and we can use them not only to communicate our beliefs but to support and champion our causes – whether that’s sustainability, equal rights or supporting the local entrepreneurs in our community.

What we wear and how we choose to spend our dollars has an impact. But perhaps most importantly of all, Michelle Obama reminds us of the importance of authenticity. “Whether you come from a council estate or a country estate, your success will be determined by your confidence and fortitude”. And while yes, we may have to work with restrictions, fashion is a powerful, political tool that can ultimately be used to build our confidence, express who we are and aid our empowerment. Something Melania Trump seemingly has yet to learn, and Jill Biden would be wise to remember should she suddenly find herself with a very important new job tomorrow.

Monica Malhotra

Monica Malhotra

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