It began with Jay Leno. It began, to be more specific, in October 2008, when Leno, host of “The Tonight Show” at the time, turned to his guest, Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic nominee for president, and said — with glee, with gotcha expectation, because it had just been revealed that the campaign clothes budget for Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, was US$150,000 (SG$211,000) — “I want to ask you about your wardrobe. I’m guessing about 60 grand? Sixty, 70 thousand for that outfit?”
“J. Crew,” Obama said of her silk blouse, gold skirt and cardigan fastened with a big rhinestone brooch. “Ladies, we know J. Crew. You can get some good stuff online!”
And thus was an eight-year obsession born. Not to mention a new approach to the story of dress and power.
When Obama understood the impact of that early answer — when she saw the public response to her outfit (which had been chosen specifically as a riposte to the Palin news) — it set in motion a strategic rethink about the use of clothes that not only helped define her tenure as first lady, but also started a conversation that went far beyond the label or look that she wore and that is only now, maybe, reaching its end.
Though amid discussion of legacy and historical change fashion may seem the least of the matter, consider the number of words devoted to what both the first lady and President Barack Obama wore since the original campaign began. Consider that for almost six years there was a blog chronicling Michelle Obama’s wardrobe choices, arguably the first devoted to the clothes of a political figure, and that when Barack Obama wore a tan suit to a news conference it practically broke the Internet (ditto when he eschewed a tie). Consider that Michelle Obama’s effect on fashion brands was the subject of a study by a New York University professor in the Harvard Business Review titled “How This First Lady Moves Markets.”
Consider all that, and there is simply no ignoring the fact that during these two terms, clothing played a role unlike any it had ever played before in a presidential administration.
A noncomprehensive litany of some of the designers whose clothes the first lady wore during her husband’s two terms in office includes: Carolina Herrera, Narciso Rodriguez, Michael Kors, Maria Cornejo, Thom Browne, Isabel Toledo, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Marchesa, Tom Ford, Vera Wang, Tadashi Shoji, Cushnie et Ochs, Tory Burch, Naeem Khan, Brandon Maxwell, Rodarte, Bibhu Mohapatra, Zac Posen, Barbara Tfank, Alexander Wang, Rag & Bone, Joseph Altuzarra, Tracy Reese, Monique Lhuillier, Thakoon, Christian Siriano, Calvin Klein, Sophie Theallet, Reed Krakoff, Diane von Furstenberg, Derek Lam, Proenza Schouler and Alice & Olivia. Also Talbots. And Target. And Ann Taylor. Sheesh.
Plus, of course: Gucci, Versace, Givenchy, Alaïa, Junya Watanabe, Christopher Kane, Roksanda, Moschino, Lanvin (those controversial expensive sneakers), Dries Van Noten, Alexander McQueen, Duro Olowu, Lanvin and Kenzo. To name a few.
It is, by any measure, an unprecedented list.
The twin conditions of the historic nature of this presidency and the fact it occurred alongside the rise of social media, which turned every public second into a shareable, comment-worthy moment, combined to create a new reality where every appearance mattered. Not everyone listened to all of the speeches or read the analysis or considered the context. But everyone paused for a moment to assess the visual. And a couple who had spent their entire lives being scrutinized as pioneers understood what that meant, and instead of bridling at it, leveraged it. If you know everyone is going to see what you wear and judge it, then what you wear becomes fraught with meaning. Certainly Michelle Obama’s significance as a contemporary role model goes far beyond her image, but no one understood the role of fashion, and the potential uses of that, better than the first lady.
“She realized very early on that everything she did had ramifications,” said Thom Browne, who made the tailored coat and dress Michelle Obama wore for the inaugural parade in 2013, as well as a dress she wore to the 2012 Democratic National Convention and also during the final debate that year. And she understood, he went on, “that people did not just want to know how she looked, but what she was about,” and that she could plant subliminal cues to the latter with her clothes.
Change was the promise, and change was the look — far beyond the amount of upper arm on display, or the riot of colour and prints. Or the cardigans.
Just because something appears trivial does not mean it is any less powerful as a means of persuasion and outreach. In some ways its very triviality — the fact that everyone could talk about it, dissect it, imitate it — makes fashion the most potentially viral item in the subliminal political toolbox. Talking heads complained early on in the second term about Michelle Obama’s allowing the clothes conversation to dominate the substance conversation, but in fact she made the two inextricable.
There have been a lot of words since the 2016 election devoted to how Obama loved fashion and fashion loved her in return, and that is true; to listen to designers who have dressed her is to hear a chorus of “it was the privilege of my career.” That the first lady, a Princeton-and-Harvard-educated lawyer and hospital power player, was publicly able to enjoy clothes allowed a swath of smart women to stop being so neurotic about dress (as she said to Vogue in her third cover story, the most of any first lady, one of the factors in choosing a garment always has to be, “Is it cute?”).
But her real contribution went far beyond giving women a license to like clothes and use them to celebrate their own strength and femininity. Just as, despite the attention paid to the study on how much the first lady was worth to a brand — “I have been publishing for 25 years,” said David Yermack, author of the study and a professor of finance at the NYU Stern School of Business, “and nothing has compared to the interest in this” — it wasn’t ultimately about revenue generation. Indeed, despite Michelle Obama’s patronage, a number of labels she wore have struggled financially, including J. Crew; Maria Pinto, which closed; and Bibhu Mohapatra, which filed for bankruptcy last week.
Rather, like first ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Nancy Reagan, Obama understood that fashion was a means to create an identity for an administration. But unlike any other first lady, instead of seeing it as part of a uniform to which she had to conform, with the attendant rules and strictures that implies, she saw it as a way to frame her own independence and points of difference, add to her portfolio and amplify her husband’s agenda.
“Our glorious diversity — our diversities of faiths and colours and creeds — that is not a threat to who we are; it makes us who we are,” she said during her final speech, and the proof was, literally, on her back. While most first ladies turned to a small number of trusted designers to help them create their look (Oleg Cassini with Kennedy; Adolfo and James Galanos with Reagan; Oscar de la Renta with Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush) Obama seemed to work with them all.
That is not a situation that, as any woman would know, happens by accident. We all tend to gravitate toward certain designers in part because of sheer laziness: We know what suits us, what we like, and so we go there first. To have been so, well, evenhanded in her choices could have happened only with careful calculation.
“I am not sure people really realised the extent of what she was doing,” said Tracy Reese, whose custom-made pink and gold silk dress, worn by Obama for her speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, became her best-selling dress when remade for sale, and whose black dress with big red poppies, worn by the first lady for the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington, is on display at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “It was really about us all.”
Especially because Obama not only wore their clothes, she also took their business seriously, framing fashion as a credible, covetable job choice during her education initiatives. She put fashion on a par with the movies by hosting a Fashion Education workshop at the White House, just as she had held a Careers in Film Symposium. She invited students to witness Jason Wu donating his first inaugural gown to the Smithsonian, and designers were occasionally included on the guest list for state dinners alongside officials, artists and executives — though no designer ever attended twice.
“She came in at a time when the economy was particularly tough and really shone a light on fashion in the broadest sense,” said Narciso Rodriguez, whose dress she wore on the night in 2008 that ushered in the Obama era, and recently at the National School Counsellor of the Year event when she gave her last speech as first lady. If you think that was an accident, there’s a bridge I can sell you — just as the fact she wore Jason Wu to her husband’s farewell address in Chicago, a designer she also wore at both inaugural balls, was no coincidence. It was closure.
Obama’s dress choices were often labeled “sartorial diplomacy” and “democratic,” and they were that; she made something of an art out of pairing designers with countries during state dinners or trips, wearing, for example, Khan, an Indian-American designer, to the India state dinner, and Ford, a U.S. designer then based in London, when she dined with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Especially in her husband’s second term, Obama used her leverage and visibility not only to raise the profile of a host of local designers (the biggest struggle for a young designer, Wu said, is attention; she solved that), but also as argument against isolationism and in support of allies across the world. It was not happenstance that she wore a Gucci gown to the Kennedy Centre Honours the same day Italy went to the polls to vote on a referendum widely viewed as a verdict on Matteo Renzi, the country’s now former reformist prime minister.
But above all, her wardrobe was representative of the country her husband wanted to lead.
It was about the melting pot and the establishment; the 1 percent and the accessible. There was something in her closet for everyone, yet she was beholden to no designer — free of any specific allegiance to, or association with, a brand. She worked at a remove, through her aide Meredith Koop, and no designers contacted for this article said they knew when the clothes she bought would be worn (if they were for personal use she did buy them, though often at a discount; if they were for state occasions, they were donated by the designer and archived, either at the National Archives or a museum). They were not told in advance, and they found out at the same time everyone else did. It was a business relationship, not a personal one.
Will it continue? To a certain extent both Samantha Cameron, wife of former British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Duchess of Cambridge have taken a page from Obama’s wardrobe book, swinging from high to low, working with a variety of London Fashion Week designers, and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has done so in Canada. But according to Yermack, who looked into the market response to both the Duchess of Cambridge and Carla Bruni Sarkozy, when she was first lady of France, “they had nowhere near the same effect.”
It may be because the point of what Obama wore was never simply that it was good to mix up your wardrobe among a group of designers, but rather that clothes were most resonant when they were an expression of commitment to an idea, or an ideal, that had resonance. And maybe it shouldn’t really matter if anyone else in her position adopts the same approach. Each administration writes its own catechism, after all. Whether we follow is up to us.
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