Behind the Obama portraits: Michelle’s dress symbolizes equality, Barack jokingly asked for less gray

Former President Barack Obama, center, stands on stage during the unveiling of the Obama's official portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington.

Former President Barack Obama, center, stands on stage during the unveiling of the Obama’s official portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington.

(Andrew Harnik / AP)
Associated Press

When Barack Obama speaks, people listen. At least they did when he was in the White House. But that kind of authority didn’t hold much sway when it came time for his presidential portrait.

At a ceremony Monday to unveil portraits of him and former first lady Michelle Obama, the former president said artist Kehinde Wiley cheerfully ignored almost all of his suggestions.

“He listened very thoughtfully to what I had to say before doing exactly what he always intended to do,” he said. “I tried to negotiate less gray hair, but Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow it. I tried to negotiate smaller ears and struck out on that as well.”

The final product depicts Obama sitting in a straight-backed chair, leaning forward and looking serious while surrounded by greenery and flowers. Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, shows her in a black and white dress looking thoughtful with her hand on her chin.


Both artists were personally chosen by the Obamas.

Designer Michelle Smith was standing in the middle of a jean shop in the Marais neighborhood of Paris when her publicist called to tell her that Michelle Obama’s official portrait had been unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery and the former first lady was wearing Smith’s dress in the painting.

The dress, Smith said by phone from Paris, is based on one that was in her spring 2017 Milly collection. That season Smith was inspired by a “desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality,” she says. One of the recurring elements in the collection were various forms of lacing and ties; the details were meant to suggest a “feeling of being held back. . . . that we’re not quite there yet.” The finish line is still off in the distance.

Although Smith offered Obama many iterations of the original dress, ultimately she chose the runway version with only a slight alteration. The runway gown was open in back. The one Obama wears is more discreet, but includes the same corset-style lacing.

Milly is not a rarefied brand. While it’s designer driven, it’s rooted in American sportswear and with cocktail dresses priced at $850 or so, it falls into the fashion category of affordable luxury: Aspirational, but not impossible.

Washington Post reporter Robin Givhan contributed to this report.