WASHINGTON – First lady Michelle Obama stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during President Obama’s second-term swearing-in, holding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s black leather Bible in her magenta-gloved hands. The smaller Lincoln Bible rested atop it. Michelle Obama said nothing during the hour-long inaugural ceremony. But in the sea of black topcoats and C-SPAN stodginess, she stood out – statuesque bearing, new bangs accentuating her cheekbones and grooming attuned to both the history books and high-definition TV.
After rallying the country to fight childhood obesity, speaking to the value of mentoring and championing the contributions of military families, she was once again in the spot where she had stood four years ago: A silent symbol of an administration’s mood and manner, a template of patriotism, a standard-bearer for femininity.
Wearing a navy Thom Browne coat cut from custom-made jacquard and a coordinating dress, she was a more subdued, more reserved presence than in 2009. She had traded in the bright, idealistic sheen of the lemongrass Isabel Toledo ensemble for one that was structured, relatively spare and unadorned except for the black, bejeweled J. Crew belt she added after the morning’s prayer service.
In four years, her style had shifted from fizzy hope to glimmering pragmatism.
Her clothes, in fact, mimicked her husband’s. The Thom Browne coat was created from tie silk and echoed his discreet blue neckwear. As expected, the president wore a sober black overcoat, dark suit and black gloves, with a tiny American flag pin dotting his lapel. Their daughters, Sasha and Malia, finished the family portrait wearing coats in shades of lilac and violet. The elegant silhouettes underscored their new maturity.
Still, the first lady’s clothes stand apart. Observers obsess about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe because it offers clues to the personality of a public woman – a historic woman – who remains a resolutely private person. In an era of televised confessionals, she has never laid herself bare. But thankfully, her clothes, with their quirks and eccentric embellishments, do not adhere to unwritten protocol or dowdy traditions that have so often left first ladies little more than beige cyphers.
For four years, Obama’s clothes have connected with the public in contemporary terms, in the language of Hollywood’s progressive glamour, Seventh Avenue’s bold entrepreneurship and the democracy of the mass market. In the constant tug of war between style and substance, Obama has proved they can be one and the same.
More than any other first lady in history, Michelle Obama has pushed the American fashion industry into the international spotlight. With a global reach unlike any actor or musician – and an authenticity untouched by endorsement deals or fealty to a single brand – she carried the creative skills, the technical wizardry and the earnest ambitions of Seventh Avenue stalwarts and upstarts into Buckingham Palace, the center of the Holy See, the neighborhoods of Ghana and into fashion’s very heart of darkness Paris.
While Obama did not invent the sleeveless sheath, she gave it distinctive verve by pairing it with lean, sculpted arms. Those arms, that powered her through celebrity push-up competitions and surely must have hugged a million White House visitors, set her apart from the generation of women who preceded her into the White House. Obama reveled in her athleticism, her physical fitness. Her arms continue to be a rallying cry for gym-going women who struggle through just-one-more-set of bicep curls. Style is a synonym for health and vigor.
Indeed, Obama has done more than any contemporary figure to normalize fashion – to move it from an outlier industry of flamboyant personalities and indecipherable verbiage to one that is discussed in the public domain with the same respectful tone applied to technology, architecture or even sports.
There is still a long way to go, of course. Cheating sports stars conjure up congressional hearings and require an interrogation by Oprah, while the fashion industry struggles to get limited trademark protections for its most unique designs. Professional women still feign fashion ineptitude as a sign of their workday gravitas.
But by giving style a prominent place in her public life, even when standing silently on a cold January day, Obama remains both eloquent and significant.