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Michelle Obama wears it well

Michelle Obama on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday and at the Neighborhood Ball last night. Michelle Obama on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday and at the Neighborhood Ball last night. (Doug Mills/Associated Press (left); Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / January 21, 2009
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By 6 p.m. last night, there was still no news, and the universe that follows fashion more closely than politics was growing anxious. Which lucky designer would Michelle Obama wear for the first dance at the Neighborhood Ball? Obama hometown favorite Maria Pinto? Up-and-comer Thakoon? It wasn't until the ball itself that the answer was revealed to be a white chiffon one-shoulder gown designed by 26-year-old Jason Wu, who was in Boston for a ICA fashion event last month.

The game of speculating over who would be designing the first lady's inaugural gown may seem like a frivolous pursuit, but a first lady's style can offer insights into the way the White House will host and entertain heads of state, and, in some ways, shape how the first family is seen by the world.

"Look at the strong contrast between Rosalyn Carter's inaugural gown and Nancy Reagan's," says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of the First Ladies collection at the Smithsonian. "Rosalyn Carter wore a blue chiffon dress that she first wore in 1971 for her husband's gubernatorial ball, while Nancy Reagan wore a chic, off-the shoulder, beaded gown by John Galanos. The Carter's entertaining style was casual, while the Reagans brought Hollywood glamour to the White House, and it was reflected in those dresses."

It remains to be seen how the Obama White House will unfold, but Michelle Obama made a bold sartorial statement yesterday at her husband's swearing in. As the new president gave a speech on the renewal of America, Michelle Obama stood out from the sea of dark winter coats in a pale gold Isabel Toledo brocade sheath dress, jeweled collar, and matching coat in Swiss wool. It was not unlike the 1961 swearing in of President John F. Kennedy, when Jacqueline Kennedy wore a pale pink ensemble and hat.

"The day was a celebration of a new president," said author and fashion editor Mandi Norwood, who's currently working on a book called "Michelle's Style." "But this was also a celebration of a first lady who is a fashion icon. It's a little depressing that we haven't had a first lady who is a fashion icon in more than half a century."

Throughout the campaign and since her husband's election as president, Michelle Obama has made a point to align herself with lesser-known but talented names in fashion. Many applaud her often surprising choices.

"We're hoping she'll be a one-woman bailout package for young American designers who desperately need some help," says Marie Clare editor in chief Joanna Coles.

Whereas previous first ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush both wore creations from Oscar de la Renta to their second inaugural balls, Michelle Obama opted to go with Wu. Even her choice of Cuban-born Toledo for the inauguration ceremony dress was unique. Toledo, a 20-year fashion veteran, was a designer at Anne Klein before striking out on her own. Michelle Obama paired the one-of-a-kind dress with gloves from J. Crew.

"It's really exciting that she's taken two designers [Toledo and Narciso Rodriguez, who designed the black and red dress she wore on election night] who have had wonderful fashion careers, but catapulted them into household-name status," says Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director of Us Weekly. "In the same way that 'Sex and the City' made household names out of designers, I think Michelle Obama will have a similar influence, but on a grander scale. It's not just going to be people who have HBO who will hear about these designers. Everybody will."

This isn't the first time that a first lady has been noticed for her style. According to Graddy, first ladies such as Grace Coolidge and Francis Cleveland - who was seen as the Jackie Kennedy of her day - both were arbiters of style. Fashionistas, who've taken to comparing Michelle Obama with Jacqueline Kennedy, see a similar path for Mrs. Obama, who has already caused a sensation in everything from J. Crew to Thakoon.

"There's something about Michelle's style that's very liberating for women," says former Vibe editor in chief Emil Wilbekin, who now serves as editor of Giant magazine. "Style-wise, she's very much in touch with the way women dress today. She mixes high and low price points and she's very in touch. I think that's why so many women identify with her."

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