The substance of Michelle Obama's style

ROBIN GIVHAN
Last updated 05:00 27/01/2013
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NIKKI KAHN/Washington Post

President Barack Obama bows before first lady Michelle Obama at the Inaugural Ball in Washington.

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NIKKI KAHN/Washington Post
President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama dance at the Inaugural Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington on Monday. The first lady wore a gown designed by Jason Wu, who also designed her 2009 gown.
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NIKKI KAHN/Washington Post
First Lady Michelle Obama during the Inaugural Parade in Washington.

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First Lady Michelle Obama stood on the steps of the US Capitol during President Barack Obama's second-term swearing-in, holding 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 ceremony. But in the sea of black topcoats she stood out - statuesque bearing, bangs accentuating her cheekbones and grooming attuned to the history books and high-definition television.

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 co-ordinating 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, bejewelled 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 mimicked her husband's. The Thom Browne coat was created from 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 her 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 proven they can be one and the same.

More than any other first lady in history, 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 - she carried the creative skills, the technical wizardry and the earnest ambitions of Seventh Avenue stalwarts and upstarts into Buckingham Palace, the neighbourhoods of Ghana and into fashion's very heart of darkness - Paris.

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Obama has celebrated a distinctly contemporary version of American style, a sensibility rooted in comfort and practicality, wholly removed from the old world formality that still percolates within French fashion and apart from the flashy sex appeal and bella figura tailoring that are the twin pillars of Italian aesthetics.

In her embrace of fashion, Obama does not ask designers to adapt their sensibilities to her own desires. Instead, she - or her emissary - encourages their best efforts and, most often, they rise to the occasion. Her ability to bring a significant financial windfall to the many mass-market labels she wears has been documented by a professor at New York University's Stern school of business.

She is the first East Wing occupant to wield such economic clout, in part because she lives in an age when a single image can be tweeted around the world.

Obama is a fashion icon, for all of the attention, discomfort and power that phrase might suggest.

But she has been dogged by scepticism and disappointment in the fact that her work has not been substantive, that it has not been worthy of her educational pedigree. The fascination with her clothes has fuelled that debate.

But is substance being confused with controversy? Obama did not dive into the roiling seas of healthcare reform as former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton did. But is tackling a pathology that threatens the life expectancy of generations of children any less significant?

Whether she will add a fourth or fifth item to her list of priorities is under discussion among her staff.

"The first lady is exploring ways that she can make a real difference for Americans," said Kristina Schake, Obama's communications director, "not just for these next four years, but for years to come."

Make no mistake; Obama would be loath to declare her interest in fashion a priority. And it is hard to imagine that she would willingly become the face of a campaign promoting the United States' $350 billion fashion industry. But style is a tool African American media use for pushing back against generations of stereotypes about black women. As Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, noted, admiring words about the glossy images of a first-lady-lawyer-mother have become a near mantra in her home - repeated, not to daughters, but to sons. Style is dignity, self-respect and confidence.

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 set her apart from the generation of women who preceded her into the White House.

Obama has revelled 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 vigour.

Indeed, Obama has done more than any contemporary figure to normalise 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.

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.

WASHINGTON POST

- Sunday Star Times

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