When Michelle Obama arrived onstage at The Women’s Conference in Long Beach on Tuesday, she was the very epitome of the image she’s come to define as first lady: a custom sheath dress by Jason Wu, an Azzedine Alaia studded belt, a glossy bob, and diamond droplet earrings. And although she is a good deal taller than Maria Shriver, whom she hugged warmly onstage, Obama was wearing another signature item: kitten heels.
Along with chiseled arms, kitten heels have become a trademark of Obama’s White House style. Because of her statuesque frame, they’ve brought her down to size (or at least closer to her husband’s size) and are an important puzzle piece in her carefully curated public image. Her heels are always low to the ground (and often shiny), but set a tone for how she presents herself to the world—and distinguish her from other first ladies, both American and international.
Obama’s kitten heels are both conservative but demonstrate a fluency in fashion; they’re simultaneously Puritanical and vaguely sexy. Her favorite heels are one- to two-inch Jimmy Choos, which she stocks by the boatload and wears with almost any dress, from everyday to formal. While she most likely chooses kitten heels because they’re comfortable and compliment her height, Obama also uses them to demonstrate a consistency in her image. “If you’re a public figure, part of having style is a consistent look,” says Kate Betts, author of the forthcoming Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Unlike Hillary Clinton’s hairstyles, which changed with the wind while she was in the White House, MObama’s careful kitten heels send a message of steadiness: no surprises here.
Yet Obama uses kitten heels in unexpected ways, playing them off an outfit with just enough whimsy to earn her style points in the fashion world. Her now famous inauguration outfit, for example, consisted of a lemongrass Isabel Toledo dress and jacket, which she paired, unexpectedly, with bottle green Jimmy Choo heels. This is a move she pulls often: “You got to get a color pop,” Obama told Harper’s Bazaar about the delight of an unexpected shoe.
“Michelle Obama wears a lot of color in her shoes, which has been an inspiration to women who feel they need to wear black or neutral heels,” says Mary Tomer, who runs Mrs. O, the popular style blog about the first lady. “She’s giving women an expanding horizon. It becomes less risky to try yourself.”
A Harvard Business Review study recently showed that Michelle Obama’s wardrobe choices over 189 public appearances in 2009 created a total value of $2.7 billion for 29 companies. And when it comes to shoes, it is clear that Obama’s penchant for kitten heels contributed to the rise of the kitten heel trend this fall, featured on runways from Prada to Marc Jacobs. “A lot of designers who have designed for her think about her when they design for the runway,” Betts says of Obama’s impact on the rise of the kitten heel in every day fashion.
Gallery: First Ladies’ Heels
It’s a trend also perpetuated by French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who, at 5-foot-10, towers 4 inches over her husband and often opts for delicate Christian Louboutin kitten heels or flats as a result.
This fashion risk-taking sets Obama firmly apart from Laura and Barbara Bush, two first ladies who, both politically and sartorially, played it safe. They shied away from statement pieces, feeling more secure in red power suits and dresses, which they often paired with boxy but sensible heels. “That’s the Washington dress code,” says Betts. “[Barbara and Laura Bush] didn’t have the fluency of fashion and they don’t feel comfortable the way Michelle [Obama] or Jackie [Onassis] did. They didn’t use fashion as the way of expressing themselves, which, one could argue, is a deficit for them because it’s an easy way to connect with people.” And in suits and sensible heels, Hillary Clinton, too, draws on the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, who wore clunky heels while she hoofed it around the world.
While the Bush women and Clinton play it safe, several other first ladies opt for the other extreme, teetering in platform high heels, otherwise known as “F*!# me” shoes. Samantha Cameron, wife of British Prime Minister David Cameron, wore platform peep-toe pumps as she introduced her newborn daughter to the public on the steps of 10 Downing in early September. Canada’s first lady, Laureen Harper, blond and floraled, teetered in a pair of skeletal heels as she posed for photos with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his wife, Nobuko, who looked far more sensible in traditional Japanese Geta.
But no one is further from Roosevelt’s first lady aesthetic than Chantal Biya, the leonine first lady of Cameroon, who wears her mane in a high pile and consistently towers in six-inch platforms. Biya joined Michelle Obama for a trek around the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hill, New York, in a magenta suit and black satin peep-toe platforms. And then there’s the perfectly groomed first lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, who, though she is a certified doctor, member of her country’s national assembly, and UNESCO goodwill ambassador, looks like Victoria Beckham in towering platforms.
Because of Obama’s consistent embrace of kitten heels, her forays with sneakers, ballet flats, and sandals are departures that pique the interest of the fashion community. The $520 Lanvin sneakers she wore to a food bank, for example, caused a frenzy; the avant-garde Maison Martin Margiela sandals she wore on vacation this summer earned her a nod of approval from the fashion world. And when she wore a pair of Tory Burch’s Chain-Trim Boots in the White House pumpkin patch last week, people noticed: “If you want to convey authenticity as a gardener, wear rubber clogs…and save the Tory Burches for other occasions,” one reader commented on the Mrs. O blog. “One interesting tension is that while you might think ‘I can’t believe we would be paying attention to her shoes,'” Tomer says of Obama, “the reality is that people are going to notice.”
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast based in Los Angeles.