Michelle Obama and “the view”

Oh my, how times (and The Times) have changed. Or maybe they haven’t. I wish Amy Spindler were still alive to sort through all of this for me.

It’s been 46 years since 1962, when Corole King wrote “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” and 2008 when Leona Lewis sang the megahit “You cut me and I keep bleeding love.” Somewhere during that time there was a women’s movement(?).

photo by Steve Fenn/ABCIt’s been been 46 years between Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1962 televised tour of the White House and Michelle Obama’stour de force guest host appearance yesterday in a White House Black Market dress (retail value $150) on ABC’s “The View.”

Yesterday, Michelle Obama definitively made it clear to her critics– with humor, warmth and (dare I say it) that dress— that they better move on to an easier target.

If you listen to the conventional view, Ms. Obama has an image problem. Yesterday’s New York Times ran the front page story “After Attacks, Michelle Obama Looks for a New Introduction.”

She more than found that introduction on “The View,” where she was able to make good on her remark at the end of the article: “You know, if someone sat in a room with me for five minutes after hearing these rumors, they’d go ‘huh?’ They’d realize it doesn’t make sense.”

I won’t rehash the unfounded criticisms leveled against her–read for yourself, from any source you’d like–but I will put them in context for you.

I told USA Today last fall that “this is an election, maybe the first one since Kennedy-Nixon, where appearance really does matter. Because we have credible female, black, Hispanic candidates, style and substance may actually be competitive, or even equally important to the public.”

Comparisons to Jack and Jackie abound for Barak and Michelle. He gets compared to JFK for his political style and she to Jackie for her sense of style.

Last week, The Times ran the article “She dresses to Win” by Guy Trebay in its Style section. Mr. Trebay points out correctly that on the night her husband clinched the Democratic nomination “what grabbed the eye was the sleeveless purple silk crepe sheath made for Mrs. Obama by Maria Pinto.” She did indeed look stunning in that dress.

“But it was particularly the color Michelle Obama chose Tuesday night that seemed symbolically rich, even if its message may have been so subtle as to be subliminal.” The article makes the arguably misguided attempt to point out that that, despite the dress’ $900 price tag, purple might have been the color of choice because it is the color achieved by mixing blue and red (states, get it?).

I say arguably misguided because even I instantly thought that the populist, budget conscious, black and white sleeveless number she wore on “The View” was worn with such drop-dead-gorgeous-sans-culottesinsouciance and was, therefore, so deliciously subversively ironic that it couldn’t have been accidental. Could it?

What I do know is that, while a woman of such accomplishment as Michelle Obama can be lauded for understanding the power of dressing, she cannot simplistically be reduced to the choices of her outfits. Yes, we all want to be considered people of substance and style. But, take it from someone who gets paid to make this call, it is a dangerous mistake to think that style is ever a lasting substitute for substance. Yes, it’s an advantage if you know how to use it to your benefit but that advantage has its limits.

I do wish the dimwits who were responsible for the film version of “Sex and the City” understood this. As Manohlia Dargis put it in her deservedly scathing review of the movie, “It isn’t that Carrie has grown older or overly familiar. It’s that awash in materialism and narcissism, a cloth flower pinned to her dress where cool chicks wear their Obama buttons, this It Girl has become totally Ick.”

And speaking of it, I’ve never been able to resist the opportunity to tell the following story because it is, well, irresistable. And suddenly pithy.

Three years ago, at a party given by Barney’s to benefit the Comer Children’s Hospital, Michelle Obama and the designer Narciso Rodriguez were the guests of honor. At that party I introduced her to Mr. Rodriguez as “the wife of Senator Obama.” She graciously corrected me by addressing Mr. Rodriguez: “Hello. I’m Michelle. I also work for the Children’s Hospital. Actually, I wear many hats.”

Thinking he’d get the joke I was about to make, I turned to Mr. Rodriquez and said “Do you make hats?” Perplexed, he looked at me and then at Michelle and said “No, but I can make you some really beautiful suits.” (I still wonder if he ever got the joke.)

The problem her critics have with Michelle Obama is that she is a woman of both style and substance. She is the coolest chick in the country wearing an Obama button.

In 2008, why is that such a bee in our collective bonnet when it should be a feather in her cap?

TheBestDressedList.com

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