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The defining looks of Michelle Obama’s White House years

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.

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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.

President-elect Barack Obama, Sasha, Malia and Michelle Obama during an election night gathering in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008 in Chicago. For the occasion, the first lady chose a red-and-black firecracker of a dress by Narciso Rodriguez.
President-elect Barack Obama, Sasha, Malia and Michelle Obama during an election night gathering in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008 in Chicago. For the occasion, the first lady chose a red-and-black firecracker of a dress by Narciso Rodriguez.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images )

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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.)

At left, the first lady wears a Naeem Khan for a state dinner honoring India’s prime minister. At right, she wears a top from ASOS Africa during visit to South Africa.
At left, the first lady wears a Naeem Khan for a state dinner honoring India’s prime minister. At right, she wears a top from ASOS Africa during visit to South Africa.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press )

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.

At left, the first lady wears a yellow Isabel Toledo dress while walking with the president on Inauguration Day 2009. At right, she appears on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Oct. 27, 2008, in a J. Crew ensemble that sells out online the following day.
At left, the first lady wears a yellow Isabel Toledo dress while walking with the president on Inauguration Day 2009. At right, she appears on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Oct. 27, 2008, in a J. Crew ensemble that sells out online the following day.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times left, Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press )
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Wardrobe diplomacy

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.

For a Sept. 25, 2015, state dinner honoring China, First Lady Michelle Obama chose a Vera Wang Collection gown.
For a Sept. 25, 2015, state dinner honoring China, First Lady Michelle Obama chose a Vera Wang Collection gown.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press )

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.

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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.

Italy’s first lady Agnese Landini, from left, Michelle Obama, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and President Obama at an October state dinner. The Atelier Versace rose gold chainmail dress gets our vote as one of Mrs. O’s most memorable looks.
Italy’s first lady Agnese Landini, from left, Michelle Obama, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and President Obama at an October state dinner. The Atelier Versace rose gold chainmail dress gets our vote as one of Mrs. O’s most memorable looks.
(Shawn Thew / EPA )

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.


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