The Quiet Power of Michelle Obama’s Fashion

The Quiet Power of Michelle Obama’s Fashion

A fellow Chicagoan reflects on the first vintage dress ever worn by an American First Lady to a public event.
A fellow Chicagoan reflects on the first vintage dress ever worn by an American First Lady to a public event.

I t’d be a stretch to say we went to high school together, but Michelle Obama and I did both graduate from the same one – albeit years apart. Everyone I know from my hometown had (and still has) an opinion about her.

My friend’s mother has always been ambivalent. With due respect, her attitude can be summed up as, “She’s a beautiful, successful, intelligent Black woman. So are all of my friends.” As I find myself in my mid-30s surrounded by beautiful, successful Black women – some mothers, some not, some finding success in a traditional corporate world, some striking out on their own – I can begin to understand the sentiment: that by treating a successful Black woman as an anomaly, something special, we undermine the idea that it is natural and common for us to achieve success. Yet whatever one thinks of Michelle Obama as an individual, the combination of who she was, where she came from and her unique situation is, quite literally, history making.

So much of that history came through how she carried herself – and what she wore.

In the early years of President Barack Obama’s first term in office, Mrs. Obama was someone to aspire to – a new template of beauty and power, intelligence and style. She possessed a level of polish and sophistication I knew I’d never have (I’m writing this in yoga pants and a probably clean T-shirt). Still, she was a Black woman from Chicago, like me; she was a tall Black woman, with hips and height like mine being celebrated for her beauty and style. At the time, I lacked the language to say why seeing her at the inauguration, in the Rose Garden and making the talk-show rounds felt so special, except that it felt like a homecoming.

In Becoming, her 2018 memoir, the former First Lady reflects on her style and how it was perceived by both the press and the public. As a public figure, she could no longer simply pick out a shirt she felt comfortable in or a dress she loved. “When it came to my choices, I tried to be somewhat unpredictable, to prevent anyone from ascribing any sort of message to what I wore,” she writes. “It was a thin line to walk.”

The messages came anyway. She was well aware that the playing field was unlevel for her in all ways, even for something as seemingly trivial as fashion. “As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized also if I was too casual… I wanted to draw attention to and celebrate American designers, most especially those who were less established.” From her well-documented love of Michael Kors in her early years in the spotlight to her post-White House Balenciaga thigh-high boots, Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices have always been imbued with meaning beyond her control.

One’s perception of Obama as a cultural icon tends to vary based on where one falls on the political spectrum. Some found fault in sartorial choices they considered beneath those of a First Lady; others saw her as the representation of a new modern woman. Yes, Barack Obama had Tan Suit Gate, but his wife’s outfits were critiqued and politicized time and time again.

“Here she was, the first of her kind, wearing a dress from the Civil Rights era. With its origin, she modeled an antidote to constant consumption, showing that luxury and restraint could go hand in hand.

When she wore a vintage 1950s gown by American designer Norman Norell to the “Christmas in Washington” broadcast taping in December 2010, she made a quiet yet important statement. Here we had a First Lady, one so different from those who had come before her, wearing a dress that seemed to fit the mold of the famous wives before her: tailored, demure, feminine. A midcentury fantasia of crinoline, organza and tulle.

To grasp the significance of this, think about fashion in 2010. Or more specifically, how we consumed, learned about and critiqued fashion. Instagram launched in October, Tumblr was filled with #inspo posts and outfits from fashion bloggers and street-style accounts like The Sartorialist were slowly democratizing who could become an influencer. Print media was “dying” but nowhere near dead – most people discovered and understood fashion through familiar media: celebrities, editorials read in the checkout aisle or on a plane, Joan Rivers on the red carpet. The traditional journey from the runway to mass market – broken down in equal parts eloquence and snark only a few years before in The Devil Wears Prada – was being challenged by upscale yet accessible online resale platforms.

So we found ourselves in 2010 with a barrier-breaking First Lady wearing a dress that was, at first glance, simply pretty. But for a country climbing out of a recession, this vintage gown from a small boutique called New York Vintage sent a subtle sign that new and flashy weren’t always best, that one could be elegant and timeless without chasing after the latest and most expensive thing. While shopping vintage and second-hand is commonplace today, if not celebrated, it wasn’t then so steeped into mainstream shopping habits (a New York Post article snarked that the dress was a “hand-me-down”). Wearing vintage also underlined one of the issues Mrs. Obama had made her calling card: the small steps individuals can take toward a more sustainable life. And it reflected her constant balancing act of remaining a glamorous public figure without looking too out of touch with the economic realities of most of the country.

1950s dress by Norman Norell, worn by Michelle Obama during “Christmas in Washington,” 2010. Estimate: $30,000-60,000

Norell himself was a trailblazer, elevating American couture to the level of the Parisian fashion houses while dressing starlets like Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Lena Horne and even First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Nicknamed the “American Balenciaga,” he combined European couture with a distinctly American eye, remaking the idea of ready-to-wear by imbuing it with glamor.

The dress, coming to auction at Sotheby’s in Fashion Icons, part of The Luxury Edit, is an understated beauty. A sleeveless, fitted bodice with a demure neckline and satin straps combines structure and modesty, yet the dress still feels young and fun. (And on the former First Lady, it showed off her often-talked-about sculpted arms.) The relative simplicity of the top balances out the voluminous midi-length skirt of crinoline and tuille, giving the dress texture, proportion and a bit of whimsy.

With the cut of the gown, Obama tapped into a model of the 1950s American feminine ideal, well aware that a dress like that had never been worn by a Black woman in her position in the White House. Black women had been in the White House before – as Senators, Congresswomen and dignitaries – but here she was, the first of her kind, wearing a dress from the Civil Rights era. With its origin, she modeled an antidote to constant consumption, showing that luxury and restraint could go hand in hand. Careful as she was in her choices, with one dress Michelle Obama connected the country’s past, present and future.

The Luxury Sales

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