The defining looks of Michelle Obama’s White House years
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)
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)
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Obama Homes States Ball on Jan. 20, 2009. She’s wearing a one-shouldered, white silk chiffon gown embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers by Jason Wu. Rounding out the outfit were Jimmy Choo shoes and diamond earrings, bracelets, and a ring designed for her by Loree Rodkin.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
The sapphire-blue Peter Soronen one-shoulder gown worn to the state dinner held for Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Margarita Zavalar.(Marvin Joseph / Washington Post via Getty Images)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
On a 2011 trip to South Africa, Obama paired a J. Crew vest and trousers with a Kitenge print blouse from ASOS Africa, a collection from U.K. online retailer ASOS that helps fund sustainable business-building in underprivileged African communities.(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)
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)
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)
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)
First Lady Michelle Obama wearing an emerald green, off-the-shoulder Marchesa gown at the Kennedy Center Honors awards ceremony in Washington on Dec. 8, 2013.(Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool / Getty Images)
About a month from now, Melania Trump will succeed Michelle Obama as the free world’s focus-puller in chief. Each time she appears by the president’s side, alights from Air Force One or attends a state dinner, her relationship with — and influence on — the world of fashion will solidify a tiny bit more.
Over the course of her husband’s administration, the world will gradually learn her personal preferences, go-to designers and decipher her coded wardrobe messages. An outfit or two will, inevitably, have fashion critics wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth in despair.
Just as inevitably, other wardrobe choices will come to epitomize the look of the incoming first lady, fix her forever in the amber of pop-culture consciousness alongside Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat, Nancy Reagan’s famed fondness for red and Barbara Bush’s omnipresent strand of pearls.
That’s the way it has been with the current first lady too.
Introduced as a sartorial blank slate during the early stages of her husband’s campaign for the White House, Obama’s look would come to be defined by bare, sculpted arms (which, you may recall originally caused quite a kerfuffle), a preference for boldly patterned florals and cardigan sweaters. Although she has been photographed wearing nearly every color under the rainbow, her closet has a deep bench of black and white, with shades of yellow deployed to punctuate important occasions.
(It should be noted that the first lady had some help in wowing us over the years, specifically in the form of fashion and wardrobe advisor Meredith Koop — what the rest of the world would call a stylist — and longtime hairstylist Johnny Wright.)
As far as specific looks that might define the current first lady for the ages, the last eight years have served up plenty of suitable candidates. So, before the final glossy page-flip from Mrs. O to Mrs. T, we thought it would be worth highlighting some of the looks that will factor into how history (well, fashion history, at any rate) will regard the Harvard Law School graduate and wife of the 44th U.S. president.
Black and red and seen all over
What do you wear to a history-making moment? If you’re Michelle Obama taking the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park alongside the freshly minted president-elect and their two young daughters, it’s a dress with the potential to become as instantly indelible as the occasion itself. And the straight-off-the-spring-2009-runway, red-and-black sleeveless sheath dress by American designer Narciso Rodriguez (paired with a black cardigan) was that indeed, splashed across newspaper front pages around the world.
With black fabric crisscrossing the front and spark-like speckles of red across the bust and hips, former Times fashion critic Booth Moore hailed it as “a major statement, the patriotic red bursting out of black like a firecracker out of the night sky.” (An early indicator of how polarizing Obama’s outfits could be, everyone seemed to have an opinion. Some readers liked it; others most decidedly did not, and one of the latter actually likened it to an abortion.)
Here comes the sunshine
For her next high-profile appearance — that was Inauguration Day in January 2009 — Obama accompanied her husband along the parade route in a matching 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. To complete the outfit she wore olive green leather gloves and teal Jimmy Choo pumps — making a memorable look even more so.
There was no way of knowing it then, but the yellow-orange slice of the rainbow would become the wardrobe equivalent of an exclamation point for the first lady, most memorably in January 2016 when she wore a sleeveless, banded-bodice, marigold-colored wool crepe midi dress from Rodriguez’s fall 2015 ready-to-wear collection to her husband’s final State of the Union address.
Another important clue to M.O.’s wardrobe M.O. would come when the Obamas hosted their first state dinner in November 2009 in honor of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur. For the occasion, Michelle paid homage to the world’s largest democracy by choosing a dress created by Mumbai-born, New York-based Indian American designer Naeem Khan (whose name would end up becoming very familiar to FLOTUS fashion fans over the years). The champagne-colored strapless gown gleaming with silver floral appliqué was the first of many elegant shoulder-baring looks to come and made successive state dinners — there would be a dozen more — must-follow events for the fashion flock.
Another state-dinner stunner was the custom-made inky black silk crepe mermaid gown she wore to the September 2015 dinner honoring China’s President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan. The choice made headlines not just because it oozed old-school Hollywood glamour or that it was from Vera Wang Collection (the U.S.-born designer’s parents immigrated from China), but also because some saw it as a diplomatic do-over for the first lady’s choice of British label Alexander McQueen for the 2011 state dinner honoring Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Obama’s efforts in wardrobe diplomacy extended beyond high-profile affairs — as well as U.S. borders. In 2014, for example, she touched down in Beijing wearing a black wool dress covered in bold, cream-colored leather-and-suede patchwork by Derek Lam, an American designer of Chinese descent. And on a trip to South Africa in 2011, she paired a J. Crew vest and trousers with a Kitenge print blouse from ASOS Africa, a collection from U.K. online retailer ASOS that helps fund sustainable business-building in underprivileged African communities.
Running with the J. Crew
Speaking of J. Crew, no recap of Obama’s fashion legacy would be complete without highlighting her influence on that label. A staple of her casual wardrobe (sometimes paired with upscale or statement pieces for a high/low look), sales of particular pieces routinely spiked after she wore them — even before her husband took office. After she name-checked the brand during an October 2008 appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” the yellow-gold Pembridge-dot pencil skirt ($148), boldly patterned yellow-and-brown-printed silk Italian Deco tank top ($148) and mustard-yellow Crystal-button colorblock cardigan ($118) sold out online the next day.
By the time the brand accompanied her into the pages of the March 2009 issue of Vogue magazine (she wore a pink Jason Wu sheath for what would be her first of three cover turns), J. Crew was ready to capitalize on the FLOTUS fashion fascination, posting a first-look photo from the shoot and advising customers that the cashmere V-neck cardigan, rumpled satin cami and tweed pencil skirt from the fall 2009 collection were available for preorder. When the Obamas made their first official trip to London in 2011, the cream-and-silver J. Crew cardigan, which the first lady paired with a mint-green version of the aforementioned pencil skirt, sold out just hours after photos were released.
One final mic-drop moment
If the Narciso Rodriguez dress from election night 2008 was the first red-and-black firecracker in the night sky, then the outfit Obama chose to wear for the last state dinner, on Oct. 18, was the over-the-top, sparkly Roman candle go-out-with-a-bang fireworks finale that brought everything to a close. The evening’s honorees were Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife, Agnese Landini, whose home country was reflected in Obama’s choice of a glittery and glamorous, floor-length, form-fitting gown from Atelier Versace that felt like the wardrobe equivalent of a mic drop.
It could have been because the rose gold chainmail gown with an asymmetrical, off-the-shoulder neckline and draping details is the same sort of soft armor worn by the warrior women who filled the runways of Paris Fashion just a few weeks earlier. Or maybe it was the powerful-women-helping-powerful-women symbolism of wearing a dress custom-designed for her by Donatella Versace in the weeks before a U.S. presidential election could have resulted in the first female commander-in-chief in our nation’s history. (Powerful women in general — and feminism in particular — was a big take-away from the same Paris shows.) Or maybe it was simply the fact that she looked, in nonprofessional parlance, damn fine. Full stop.
Or maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever the reason, we’ll wager that that rose gold chainmail gown will rank among Obama’s most-remembered looks during her eight years as first lady — right up there with the J. Crew pencil skirts.
For more musings on all things fashion and style, follow me @ARTschorn.