While Michelle Obama’s entire Becoming book tour has been a delightful spectacle of fashion-forward outfits (Cushnie! Pyer Moss! Givenchy!), the former first lady’s wardrobe made quite a statement last week on the final stop in Brooklyn. It was the thigh-high Balenciaga boots that signaled post-White House Michelle Obama, The Civilian, was finally relaxed after meticulously calculating her appearance for the last eight years. Eight years of scrutiny and policing that women who look like her are all too familiar with. This isn’t to discount the stunning $3,900 boots, which yes are very important, but so is the context of why Black women are cheering her on for wearing them.
For Obama, becoming First Lady of the United States was about more than supporting her husband’s political ambition or developing her own platform. As the first black woman to hold the position, she had to be prepared for a particular type of attention to her every move.
"As a Black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high-end, and I’d also be criticized if I was too casual," Obama wrote in her memoir, describing the White House strategy. Obama recounted how "a few times a month, [her longtime personal stylist] Meredith [Koop] would roll several big racks of clothing into my dressing room in the residence, and we’d spend an hour or two trying things on"; and the clothing had to pass a test of whether Michelle could "squat, lunge, and pinwheel" her arms (a preventative measure the garments move naturally in public in way Obama would be criticized for). Presumably, she and Koop are still performing those sort of tests, but Michelle’s style is different. It’s better. It’s hard to imagine the person who shunned the spotlight, wearing J.Crew sweater sets alongside Chicago’s political set is suddenly this Fashion Person ™ wearing Balenciaga fresh off the runway.
Despite this strategy she discusses in the book, she was still lambasted, — or perhaps the strategy was a result of the criticism — which is why the internet collectively lost its mind when Obama got her hair wet on vacation, showing her natural curls for the first time publicly. One Twitter user summed up the risk that comes with Black women wearing their natural hair in white spaces, writing "Boy if Michelle Obama would have ever worn her hair natural it would have been a fuckin debacle."
When Obama wore a pair of drawstring high-waisted shorts and a white tank top under a voluminous white jacket to see On The Run II in Paris where she danced beside Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles. Black women celebrated Obama having a night of fun with her daughter and friend, but it didn’t take long before detractors began to compare her to Melania Trump. “Embarrassing entire US in shorts… former First Lady Michelle Obama,” @RickAndKim30yrs wrote. “Not even mother of Beyoncé is as classless as Michelle to wear shorts like a teenage fangirl. FLOTUS Trump = Elegance.” The fact that Rick and Kim are Trump supporters aside, this criticism is baseless. Michelle Obama was the picture of elegance during her eight years in the White House. She used her fashion to not just show how relatable she was, but also to uplift emerging and international designers. Taiwanese designer Jason Wu’s career took off after he designed Obama’s first inauguration dress. Tracey Reese became a household name after she created the dress Michelle wore to the Democratic National Convention in 2012; as well as Thakoon who FLOTUS often wore on the campaign trail.
Obama certainly never used her appearance to demean anyone in the ways Trump has with her controversial Zara jacket or “storm stilettos.” Obama is still being held to a code of conduct that has never existed for our current administration — she had to acknowledge Donald Trump at George H.W. Bush’s funeral while Bill and Hillary Clinton didn’t have to acknowledge her or Melania — and that’s why we celebrate her liberation now.
Not only is she dressing differently, she’s conducting herself differently in interviews. Sure, she’s trying to sell books, but Obama is candid about Donald Trump’s birther conspiracy theory, what it was like to conceive her children through in vitro fertilization, and even how it felt to leave the White House for the last time. And she’s doing it in designers who mimic a breath of fresh air. During Obama’s Brooklyn stop with moderator Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress asked Michelle if there was an underlying meaning to the Givenchy spring 2019 boots. "We learned that fashion does have meaning," she reiterated.
"So, turning that awareness on its head so that it becomes strategic and impactful is definitely something that doesn't just happen — you have to actually be thinking about it or you waste the opportunity to have a broader impact. But now, I'm free to do whatever. There is no message. The boots are telling you no message. They were just really cute. I was like, Those some nice boots!" But for a woman whose body was under attack for the last eight years, there is a message, and it’s a freedom that’s long awaited and much deserved.