When is a dress not simply a dress? When the first lady wears that dress to a state dinner honoring China, or so it seems given the recent fall-out over First Lady Michelle Obama’s choice to wear (gasp) an Alexander McQueen to such a dinner. To wear a foreign designer during a visit focused on American-Chinese trade relations is, as it turns out, tantamount to showing up in ratty sweatpants with toilet paper on her shoe. Quelle horreur!
The first lady’s wardrobe has always been a subject of fascination for the American public, from Dolly Madison’s “smart” fashions to Frances Cleveland’s abandonment of the bustle to Nancy Regan’s love affair with the color red. But a first lady’s fashion choices have not been so keenly observed and excruciatingly analyzed as Mrs. Obama’s since the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Inquiring minds want to know who is styling her (a White House aide, perhaps?) and how frequently she (gasp) repeats outfits. Hell, there is even a popular blog wholly devoted to Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe featuring daily updates.
But why is there so much fuss about the contents of Mrs. Obama’s closet, and does all of the attention on how she’s packaged necessarily diminish her efficacy as a public advocate?
First things first: what Mrs. Obama wears is big business. From her first choices of a Jason Wu evening gown and an Isabel Toldeo day dress during the inauguration, she has given unprecedented visibility to (and directly contributed to the success of) up-and-coming American designers. But even established designers Oscar de la Renta and Diane Von Furstenberg publicly expressed their disappointment over the McQueen gown (Mr. de la Renta claiming his concern was on behalf of “young American designers”, and Ms. Von Furstenberg speaking in her capacity as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America). Designer Nanette Lepore wrote a recent editorial piece for The Huffington Post decrying Mrs. Obama’s recent statement that, while “it’s nice to have on a nice suit”, Mrs. Obama finds her national health initiative decidedly more gratifying. Their underlying message? While Mrs. Obama may favor some non-American designers or prefer philanthropic work to shopping, she has a responsibility as First Lady to the American fashion industry that must come first (or risk embarrassing public backlash, so it seems). With even mass market retailers like J. Crew and (shudder) Talbots standing to gain from the First Lady’s patronage, this obligation (burden?) is only further underscored.
All of this leads to an even more troubling question: does all of the focus on what the First Lady wears essentially reduce her to a fashion plate, or worse, a glorified billboard? She is, after all, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated attorney turned business executive and community organizer, and now a vocal champion in the battle against childhood obesity. Is it possible for the conversation to be about both who she’s wearing and what she’s doing? Insofar as first ladies are concerned, the answer remains to be seen, but we here at P&V ardently believe that cashmere twinsets, ladylike pleated skirts and a strand of pearls needn’t stand in the way of a woman kicking some serious ass (and conversely, that a woman needn’t gird herself in frumpy pantsuits to sit at the big kids’ table). Style does not have to be an impediment to substance, and if Mrs. Obama must be a billboard, here’s hoping this is the message she’s proudly displaying for all to see.