On October 18, 2016 Michelle Obama with her husband, President Barack Obama gave their final State Dinner in honour of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife, Mrs. Agnese Landini. What became a trending topic of the event was the rose gold Atelier Versace chainmail gown that the First Lady wore for the occasion. Being scrutinized for their wardrobe choice comes with the job for the First Lady of United States of America. The world has seen, revered and criticized all those who have come along so far, be it Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton. More often they have been criticized than revered, whether it was Jackie O’s extravagant spending on her wardrobe or hair or Hillary Clinton’s choices of pantsuits. But Michelle Obama’s influence on the fashion industry is a unique study of its own.
During her first time on the cover of Vogue, Obama told Andre Leo Talley, editor-at-large of US Vogue that she loves clothes, “First and foremost, I wear what I love. 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.”1 After 8 years in the Oval Office, she achieved just that, apart from contributing immensely towards the nutrition industry in America, addressing childhood obesity and being an icon women look up to all over the world for her power and grace.
One can see a pattern and predict Michelle Obama’s favourite pieces to wear if one follows her sartorial choices. As Gloria Steinem puts it, she has always been a woman who knows the difference between fashion (what outside forces tell you to wear) and style (the way you express a unique self).2 Michelle Obama knows a good sleeveless sheath dress shows off all her best assets, a cardigan is always good for layering to brace the weather, a belt accentuates her waist and kitten heels are much more comfortable to wear than stilettos and still very lady like. She doesn’t feel the need to be bogged down by skirt suits that have always been the preferred outfit choice of her predecessors. She knows she is more comfortable in a vibrant colour or an eclectic print.
The choices she makes on a day-to-day basis in terms of the clothes she puts on her back may not seem like a big deal, but the position of being the First Lady alters it. She has a billion eyes on her ready to pounce on one wrong step. That is an unfathomable pressure, that even Jackie Kennedy succumbed to, who had to call up fashion editor, Diana Vreeland for help in the matter of fashion. But it is something that Michelle Obama does effortlessly. In a study carried out to gauge the influence of Michelle Obama on other women, it was found out women related to her fashion choices because they seemed more authentic to them. The study also noted that the women responded to Michelle Obama’s tendency to step out of the unofficial dress code set on women of a certain age if they wanted to be taken seriously. Jackets over dresses, dresses with sleeves, sombre colour palette, understated jewellery, stockings. Michelle Obama hasn’t abided by any of these conservative norms while still being a powerful woman whose words the world hangs on, thereby giving millions of other women permission to contemporize their wardrobes.3
Another way that Michelle Obama has set herself apart from her predecessors or contemporaries is her love for affordable fashion. Michelle Obama has worn everything from J.Crew, Target, Nordstrom, Macy’s to Talbots which in turn has had a huge impact on these company’s stock prices. A study conducted by The Stern School of New York on the effect Michelle Obama has on 29 companies whose clothes she has worn found out that a total value of $2.7 billion was created for those companies and their stock prices increased by 2.3% in cumulative abnormal returns. The figures are unprecedented and no other celebrity or any other First Lady for that matter has had such impact. The reason behind it is stated as “Obama mixes couture with items anyone can buy at a mall… Consumers flock to the stores, and even if they don’t buy what she wears, they often leave with something else.”4 She also wears a lot of new, young designers like Jason Wu, Thakoon, Cushnie et Ochs, etc. This in turn brings them a publicity they couldn’t have dreamed of and boosts their businesses.
Does that mean she has been devoid of criticism for fashion choices? Can anyone? No. When she wore black cardigan paired with her black full skirt during her first visit to 10 Downing Street, American designer Oscar de la Renta pointed out that one doesn’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater5. She has been criticized for wearing sleeveless dresses, being too simple, not wearing American Couture, not acting or looking like what has been perceived as the norm for First Ladies. But as Rashida Jones notes, “Michelle Obama will have her own legacy, separate from her husband’s. And it will be that she was the first first lady to show women that they don’t have to choose. That it’s okay to be everything.”2