This week, Michelle Obama was celebrated for her aesthetic choices once again, having worn a floor-length off-the-shoulder Gucci gown for her final appearance as First Lady at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors.
And I hope we as fashion people found time to take a step back amidst the year’s misery marathon to cherish this blessed moment. Since 2008, we’ve watched as Obama has shown that she “gets” fashion. And, that doesn’t just mean that she knows relevant brands or takes aesthetic risks. Whether by opting for an Italian designer this week (in response to the country’s referendum) or by wearing metallic-seeming Atelier Versace to her final state dinner days after her call to arms this October, Michelle understands how to make use fashion to tell part of a story. But she certainly hasn’t made it the star.
Obama has been compared to Jackie O in terms of aesthetic awareness, but that’s where the similarities end. Because while calling Michelle “stylish” would be a terrible understatement, she’s still only used fashion as a secondary character in her complex narrative. Yes, she’s dazzled us in Naeem Khan, Vera Wang, and Jason Wu, but they’ve been tools to compliment her political and social mandates. Her fashion sense has been an extra — an additional avenue for expression in a position where you can only express so much. She is not an It Girl™ or a trophy, or a woman whose identity is built on branding (and displaying it on Instagram). She is a lawyer with degrees from Princeton and Harvard. She’s built nonprofits (having co-launched Let Girls Learn to bring accessible education to adolescent girls), ushered in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHKA) to bring healthier lunches to schools, and developed Let’s Move!, a program built to tackle childhood obesity. Ultimately, her stint as First Lady redefined the role as she married the worlds of politics and social justice to erase the notion that a First Lady’s place was merely next to her husband. From 2008 to present, Michelle’s place has been leading in her own way right along with him.
So fashion has never been her only story to tell. Which is why she’s never let it be.
But, the media’s sure as hell tried. Back in 2009, the First Lady was criticized for not wearing sleeves, while that same year she was scrutinized for wearing a cardigan. But instead of bending to right-wing whims, unnecessary controversy, or even focusing on fashion above all else, Michelle and her stylist Meredith Koop veered away from the path of the traditional First Lady (read: dressing to appease everyone, and shock no one) and wove her clothes into a bigger, more encompassing legacy.
“In the beginning, designers used the phrase, ‘First Lady-ish’ to describe a certain traditional look,” Koop told Harper’s Bazaar in October. “We really had to break that mold, [and] highlighting designers from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of success and exposure became an important part of my role.”
Also part of Koop’s role was avoiding discussions about fashion altogether, as the stylist was required to “decline to give press interviews or otherwise interact with the media.”
“When [the First Lady] wears an up-and-coming designer, it creates this feeling that anything is possible,” Koop explained to Harper’s Bazaar. “This is something the First Lady talks a lot about with young people, how important it is to follow their dreams and work hard no matter what obstacles my come their way. I wanted to translate that very message into her clothing.”
By not explicitly speaking about her clothes, Obama was able to ensure that her style didn’t become the only message — a feat, when you think about the way we talk about the red carpet choices of actors and musicians, or the way we tend to speak to high profile women about their style versus the way we tend to speak to high profile men. (Like when cosmonaut Elena Serova was asked about her hair instead of, well, anything else.) So while Michelle undoubtedly earned attention for who she was wearing, how the pieces looked, and the political messages they were sending, her tendency to refrain from discussion about clothing made her clothes an extension of self instead of the whole. We’d speculate about why she opted for a particular designer, but then we’d weave that speculation into how the pieces reflected her political platforms or those of the country’s. And, by doing that, it made any other conversation about Obama’s style choices null, void, and even inappropriate. (Why would we talk skirt length when she was delivering a speech about sexism?) Which, arguably, was likely her plan all around.
In a 2009 interview with Vogue, Michelle made it clear that while she cared about fashion personally, she had no intention of tweaking her sense of it for the public’s approval.
“First and foremost, I wear what I love,” she told the magazine. “That’s what women have to focus on: what makes them happy and what makes them feel comfortable and beautiful. If I can have any impact, I want women to feel good about themselves and have fun with fashion.”
That’s reflected in Obama’s own approach to fashion. Whether through her gowns, casualwear, or the checkered ASOS dress worn in the early days of her husband’s 2012 campaign, Michelle made choices that reflected not only her pre-First Lady aesthetic, but her own personal tastes. She didn’t stick to suits like Nancy Reagan (who reflected her husband’s conservatism) or even the blazers of early-nineties-era Hillary Clinton. Instead, she followed the footsteps of women like Beyonce, whose style has always been well thought out and intentional, but has certainly not been the only talking point. And that’s why her fashion has urged us to look closer and listen, because it was usually playing a part in drawing attention to something else — to something bigger.
So while we can praise the First Lady’s Gucci gown, we know that it’s not Michelle Obama’s only contribution to the current political and social discussion. We know that Michelle has never gone gently into that stacked closet, surrendering herself to the whims of her stylist. And we also know that as a politically aware person she would’ve known that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had resigned (or, at the time of choosing this particular dress, was likely in the process of doing so). Just like she would’ve known that anything she wears is analyzed for deeper meaning, so that opting out of donning an American designer would’ve been noticeable — which it was. And while Michelle Obama’s contributions to current political and social discussions has never been only topical, her clothes have complemented her state of mind.
She has never been merely a gown or a cardigan.
So what’s that to say for the next four years? Plagiarized speech aside, Melania Trump is a vastly different person from her predecessor, especially since we’ve learned the family’s intention to live at Trump Tower in New York. This means that already, Melania is showing how disinterested she is in engaging the American people in political discourse, and how separately she’s keeping herself from the capital’s dealings. But despite that, Trump has worn clothing that could be read by some as small tokens of subversion — whether it’s wearing a pussy-bow blouse to the debates after news of her husband’s misogynistic comments were made public, or choosing to wear non-American designers during the campaign, when her husband has been an outspoken critic of globalization. But we’ll have to see — depending on what Trump chooses to do, engage in, and say beyond just her wardrobe, we’ll be able to see whether this First Lady’s clothing is also an intentional act of communication, or just an aesthetic choice.
Which means that yet again, the First Lady’s clothing choices will be politicized. But unlike what seems to be taking shape with Melania, Michelle Obama’s style story wasn’t the only one she wanted to tell. Not to mention that when Michelle chose a piece, it was still always a secondary character — it was a part of her story, but not the star. Because even when she was cloaked in Gucci last week, making waves for wearing an Italian designer who’s best known for shaking up the establishment and redefining what’s considered desirable and beautiful, the questions weren’t about how the dress looked or its trendiness. It was just another avenue for examining Obama’s own political awareness. Which speaks volumes not just about the importance of fashion, but the power one can wield when working alongside, not in service of it.