Michelle Obama: First lady of style
In this May 24, 2011, photo with Queen Elizabeth II, President Barack Obama and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, Michelle Obama is wearing a white gown by American designer Tom Ford, who has a home in London.(Larry Downing / Associated Press)
For the state dinner honoring Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, FLOTUS chose a full-length strapless gown in navy-blue silk with a yellow and red floral print by Taiwan-born, Canada-raised designer Jason Wu.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
For the Sept. 25, 2015, state dinner honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first lady went with a black silk crepe mermaid gown by Vera Wang, an American designer whose parents had immigrated from China.(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
First Lady Michelle Obama and China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan, visit the National Zoo in Washington on Sept. 25, 2015.(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards dinner in Washington on Sept. 19, 2015.(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
Michelle Obama waves to students after a visit to Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., on Sept. 17, 2015.(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
Michael Kors was one of the American designers well-represented in Michelle Obama’s wardrobe. Here she attends the 2015 State of the Union address in a gray skirt suit by Kors.(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)
Arm-baring looks were a FLOTUS favorite. In this photo she’s speaking during the Fashion Education Workshop at the White House on Oct. 8, 2014.(Alex Wong / Getty Images)
For a state dinner honoring French President Francois Hollande, FLOTUS wore a Carolina Herrera gown with a black lace top and full taffeta skirt in periwinkle bue.(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
While on winter holiday in Hawaii, Michelle Obama -- pictured here with daughter Sasha -- stayed casual with wardrobe items like this blue Narciso Rodriguez shirtdress.(Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images)
First Lady Michelle and President Barack Obama pose with Oprah Winfrey in the Blue Room of the White House during a taping of the ABC special, “Christmas at the White House.” Michelle wore a purple velvet Azzedine Alaïa number.(Pete Souza / Associated Press)
For the first state dinner of the Obama administration, honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur, the first lady wore a Champagne-colored strapless gown gleaming with silver floral appliqué by Mumbai-born, New York based, Indian American designer Naeem Khan.(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama, in a burnt-orange Isaac Mizrahi ensemble, stands with Gursharan Kaur, wife of the Indian prime minister, during an arrival ceremony in the East Room of the White House.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
The first lady wears a lilac Anne Klein New York number to afternoon tea in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 18, 2009.(Haraz N. Ghanbari / Associated Press)
Mrs. Obama made the mixing of high and low a wardrobe signature. Here she belts a blue J. Crew coat over a Maria Pinto dress for the 2009 Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
First Lady Michelle Obama turned to Jason Wu -- one of her go-to designers -- for this detailed black sleeveless dress she wore to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Phoenix Awards on Sept. 26, 2009.(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
Michelle Obama in a polka-dotted Diane von Furstenberg dress at the Pittsburgh International Airport in September 2009, before her husband attends the G20 Summit in town.(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)
The first lady wore a shiny red Michael Kors number when her husband spoke at the 64th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters.(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
The first lady turned out to be a big fan of the floral print. Here the Obamas arrive for the Medal of Honor ceremony for U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Jared C. Monti at the White House Rose Garden.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Michelle Obama paired a patterned skirt with a yellow top (yellow being one of her signature hues) and a turquoise cardigan for an event supporting Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid on Sept. 16, 2009.(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)
When it comes to color, Michelle Obama gravitated toward shades of yellow. Here she speaks at the 10th Design Awards luncheon in the East Room of the White House on July 24, 2009.(Chris Kleponis / AFP/Getty Images)
When in Rome: Michelle Obama wore a veil by Italian design house Moschino when she and President Obama went to the the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI.(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)
The Obamas wave from Air Force One before they leave Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base for a trip to Moscow. The boldly patterned floral dress and yellow cardigan were familiar elements of her look.(Luis Alvarez / Associated Press)
Michelle Obama wore purple Isaac Mizrahi when she cut the ribbon for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s renovated American Wing.(Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images)
Mrs. Obama chats with photographer Dough Mills of the New York Times during the White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner in May. That hot pink number she’s wearing? It’s Michael Kors -- one of the labels frequently worn by the first lady.(Mandel Ngania / AFP/Getty Images)
For a breakfast with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, Michelle Obama wore mint-green version of the J. Crew Pembridge-dot pencil skirt and a crystal-studded cardigan.(Leon Neal / EPA)
Upon landing in Essex, England, on March 31, 2009, the first lady steps out in a chartreuse dress designed by Jason Wu, a name that became familair to FLOTUS fashion followers.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
For inauguration day 2009, Michelle Obama chose an Isabel Toledo lace-over-wool dress and coat ensemble in a retro “Mad Men” silhouette and strikingly optimistic shade of yellow that fell somewhere between lemon and freshly churned butter.(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)
The Times fashion critic, Booth Moore, called the straight-from-the-spring-runway Narciso Rodriguez dress that Michelle Obama wore on election night (which she paired with a black cardigan) “a major statement, the patriotic red bursting out of black like a firecracker out of the night sky.”(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Michelle Obama name-checked J.Crew on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” pointing out that she had bought her $148 Pembridge-dot pencil skirt and $89.99 color-block cardigan online. Both styles sold out on J.Crew’s website the next day.(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)
Michelle Obama in a Maria Pinto teal sheath dress ($795) and starburst brooch at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 25, 2008.(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)
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 Mrs-O.org 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.”