Michelle Obama: First lady of style

Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

In the past four years, no woman has been a more powerful fashion force than Michelle Obama.

Even after so much time on the public stage, her wardrobe choices still spark trends, drive sales and generate discussion and dissection on blogs and morning TV shows. On her 49th birthday on Thursday, the fact that she was sporting a new hairstyle with bangs heated up the Twitterverse.

The components of the first lady’s personal style (pearls, cardigans, kitten heels) are instantly recognizable. Her endorsement of young designers such as Jason Wu, Rodarte, Band of Outsiders, Tracy Reese and Prabal Gurung has helped raise a new generation of American fashion talent. And she has given American women (including those over age 40) permission to dress to impress, to experiment with wearing color and print, to have fun with fashion.


Photos: The fashions of Michelle Obama

But if the cliche about a second presidential administration is true — that it is an opportunity to tackle a new agenda without having to worry about reelection — what will the first lady’s second “fashion administration” look like, beginning with Monday’s inauguration attire?

“Do I think now that she’s in a second term she will go Goth, get tattoos or suddenly start wearing all European designers? No,” says Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour magazine, which featured the first lady on the cover in December 2009.

“She’s stayed true to her personality in the White House, which is one of the reasons women look up to her,” Leive says. “The shapes she wears are consistent, the fitted bodices, fuller skirts and sleeveless tops. Her affinity for color and print has remained consistent. The Michelle Obama you see in 2013 acts and looks a lot like what she looked like on the campaign trail.”

Mikki Taylor, author of the 2011 book “Commander-in-Chic: Every Woman’s Guide to Managing Her Wardrobe Like a First Lady,” and editor at large at Essence magazine, agrees.

“From a practical perspective, she has taught us the importance of defining your dress code, the importance of developing a signature style that works for you,” Taylor says. “She put J. Crew on the map. She made cardigans, which she owns in a rainbow of hues, youthful. She made sheath dresses fresh and revived the kitten heel. She’s her own role model, and doesn’t care to be anybody else’s style plate. It’s all about unexpected pairings. She dresses to ‘infotain’ herself and likes to mix classics with a twist, like at the Democratic National Convention when she threw on the pink suede shoes and gray nail polish. She loves throwing an unexpected curve in there.”

But other fashion observers have noticed some subtle changes.

“She’s started to streamline her style a lot, which may signal a move away from the whole fashion thing and a move toward trying to emphasize her causes,” says Kate Betts, author of the 2011 book “Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.”

“She’s wearing fewer accessories, including belts and bold jewelry, fewer floral prints. She’s wearing suits more,” Betts says. “She’s dressing less like a 1950s housewife, which was a very strategic image she wanted to put out there early on to say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, I’m not going to the West Wing and rolling up my sleeves to get to work.’ For all the people who thought she would be the sequel to Hillary Clinton in terms of her serious education and professional credentials, Michelle Obama actually went in the other direction, embracing a more traditional role and look.”

In recent months, Obama has emphasized affordable labels over designer pieces, Betts says.

On the campaign trail last fall, for example, she wore dresses by Jones New York and BCBG Max Azria, each of which retailed for less than $300 and all of which were documented on the blog, which has registered more than 2.5 million visits each year since starting to chronicle the first lady’s style in 2009.

Obama has also been rewearing a lot of pieces, most notably on election night when she chose a magenta silk pintucked dress by Michael Kors that she had worn back in 2010.

Photos: The fashions of Michelle ObamaThe gold Lurex Michael Kors suit she wore for the debut of the White House Christmas decorations in December was an old favorite from 2009. The blush-colored Byron Lars dress worn at December’s “Christmas in Washington” concert made an appearance back in 2010, when Paul McCartney was at the White House to accept the Gershwin Prize.

“She’s sending the right message: that it’s not really a time to buy a lot of new clothes. So many people are in such trouble economically and she’s in tune with that,” Betts says. “And I do think her inaugural gown

is going to be something she has worn before.”

Taylor predicts Obama’s inaugural gown will be “colorful” and “celebratory” and maintains that Obama has been reworking and repeating pieces all along. “Before anyone started talking about the ‘fiscal cliff,’ she was teaching us to shop our closet. She’s the first presidential wife to successfully work her distinctive pieces in the public eye again and again. She doesn’t care if she’s worn it before or been photographed in it before. She demonstrates that you can be price-conscious and still look as fabulous as if you have a rock star budget. It’s really the antithesis to red carpet culture.”

Rather than distracting from her agenda, Betts suggests that the first lady’s fashion focus has strengthened her message when it comes to the Let’s Move! health and fitness initiative. How you treat your body has a lot to do with your appearance, Betts says, and Obama uses her appearance and how she looks in clothes to showcase the effects of regular exercise and weight management.

Taylor agrees: “The fact that she looks the part shouldn’t detract from the fact that she is the part.”