Inaugural Fashion: Beyond the Clothes


The real news about Michelle Obama’s fashion choices for the Inauguration is not, ironically,  in the details you will surely not be able to avoid today but in the larger picture you might have already missed.

As of yesterday, there is a very good case to be made that, amid the rumors about whether Anna Wintour, the uber poweful editrix of Vogue magazine is about to be replaced,  America’s new First Lady is now the de facto most important and powerful  champion of American fashion.

Only fashion insiders keep score of Ms. Wintour’s  conspicuously short list of designers for whom she serves as cheerleader in chief. (Well, okay, those on the longer list for whom she does not cheerlead keep  even closer score.) The average American consumer, and dare I say even but the most attentive of Vogue readers, can’t tell you who curries her favor and who doesn’t. Read Cathy Horyn‘s excellent New York Times piece  “Citizen Anna” if you need to catch up.

By contrast, women all over the country and the world, can tell you not only which designers and brands  Mrs. Obama favors (J CrewWhite House Black Market, Maria Pinto, Narciso RodriguezMaria Cornejo),  but wait with baited breath for whom she will add to her expanding list of favorites. Anna Winour may be an  elite kingmaker behind the scenes, but Michelle Obama is a populist kingmaker who can  make household names out of relatively obscure designers like Maria Pinto and, as she surely did yesterday, with Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo.[picapp src=”c/7/f/0/8c.JPG?adImageId=4876749&imageId=3817303″ width=”500″ height=”612″ /]

But she can also make merchandise  fly out of showrooms and store shelves, in large part because like people of real  contemporary style she is adept at navigating  and mixing high and low pricepoints  with  enviable ease. In the current dismal retail environment, Mrs. Obama’s power is, as Guy Trebay reports, remarkably important, whether you’re courting favor by impressing her with your merchandise at the mall or by knowing Ikram Goldberg, the influential Chicago retailer who  (unofficially but  with glaring  business savvy –and Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu inventory!) has the First Lady’s ear.

This is not to say that all of her  fashion choices are always right. She has made plenty of mistakes but that is to be expected of anyone who goes out of their way to think (or in this case, dress) out of the box. When you take risks, as long as more of your risks pay off big, the risks which dont are easily overshadowed.

As for the clothes she wore yesterday, here’s my take: the  color of the Isabel Toledo ensemble was beautiful and extremely flattering (which is what I think people are responding to when they rave about how good she looked) but apart from that, if you added a handbag and goofy hat, it was essentially a Princess Margaret outfit or a mother of the bride outfit.

The Narciso Rodriguez designed  camel skirt, black silk blouse and black silk lined camel coat she wore to the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday was the real show stopper of the Inaugural events.

Right down to the belt, earings hair and makeup , I don’t think I have ever  seen her look more chic and sophisticated. (Both designer and client needed to right the wrong of the election night dress in Grant Park and what a more fitting place to do it than in front of Lincoln.  Irony noted. Apology accepted.)

The Jason Wu gown was a clearly a labor of love and craftmanship as it was in naivite. Its color choice certainly brought to mind the inaugural choices of the two chicest First Lady’s of the 2oth century, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.[picapp src=”4/5/f/8/7b.JPG?adImageId=4876756&imageId=3666832″ width=”380″ height=”268″ /]

As far as Inaugural ballgowns go, it was one of the best ever, if that can be considered a compliment.  But it  also came dangerously close to looking like a wedding dress. The train made it visibly awkward to dance in, and even a casual viewer of Project Runway would easily and gleefully point out that is not a minor flaw in a ball gown.  Finally, I’m not convinced that a column dress of such volume  was the most flattering choice for her figure.

That said, the good news is really that this is only the beginning of her look for formal events on the international stage and it was impressive enough. She’s  already proven that she can engage both the public and the design world with her choices. I hear they both send  their best wishes for a picture perfect marriage of style and politics.

4 Responses to “Inaugural Fashion: Beyond the Clothes”

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