11.01.10

How Michelle Got Her Fashion Mojo Back

At least one Obama is still popular. In a string of campaign appearances, Michelle Obama pulled out the fashion artillery to say: 'We're not backing down.' Kate Betts decodes fashion's political language.

As her husband struggles to summon his political magic in time for tomorrow’s midterm elections, the first lady has been cutting a wide swath through swing states, flaunting her fashion fluency.

Has Michelle gotten her fashion mojo back?

For this campaign season, during a string of appearances at Democratic fundraisers, Michelle has pulled out the heavy fashion artillery. At a rally for Harry Reid in Las Vegas on Monday, she wore a graphic black and white skirt and a sleeveless top. In Los Angeles last week to support Senator Barbara Boxer she wore a slim L’Wren Scott sleeveless dress on stage with Hillary Clinton and Jill Biden. The night before in San Francisco, she slipped into a slinky velvet Thakoon dress for a fundraiser with Nancy Pelosi. To support Senator Patty Murray in Bellevue, Washington, Michelle chose a printed blouse by the young English designer Peter Pilotto. And for those who may have thought it was getting a bit too Vogue, she tempered the fashion with a simple pink cardigan and a $99 Talbot’s necklace on The Ellen Show.

Most first ladies throughout history have gotten the memo on style and appearance when it matters most. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, who didn’t give a fig about such matters and wore a hairnet most of the time, recognized certain occasions require a bit of shopping. But not since Jackie O has a first lady been so incredibly precise when it comes to her public image.

Of course, there have been a few moments where she has come perilously close to what I call the first lady team jersey—that dreaded shiny shantung pantsuit look. (Yup, she went there on September 11 when she appeared with Laura Bush in Shanksville, Pennsylvania).

Gallery: Michelle Obama Fashion

Perhaps the mom-in-chief was then trying to tone down her look after the unapologetically extravagant Gaultier moment in Spain last summer. Or, perhaps she’s more comfortable wearing the Washington D.C. uniform on serious occasions. But I doubt it. She’s been known to choose the brightest colors for the most emotionally difficult appearances. When it comes to fashion Michelle will not be bullied. As she herself has said, “It’s more comfortable for me to be Michelle than it is to be the first lady. And I think I’m a far better first lady when I’m Michelle rather than somebody else that is in a magazine.”

This is a woman who leap-frogged over her chit-chat buddy Oprah and pop diva Beyoncé to land on the tippy top of the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women in the World.

Michelle knows she can speak volumes with her style—particularly to the women who are not yet mobilized to vote in this crucial midterm election. As first lady she also knows her role is to communicate the emotional tenor of her husband’s administration. So she knows just when to get out the uplifting bright tangerine Calvin Klein dress, the I-mean-business Jason Wu blouse and, perhaps the most famous political ammo in her closet, that Azzedine Alaïa “Star Trek” Belt.

While her husband tells Jon Stewart exactly how much he has accomplished since taking office, Michelle is echoing the sentiment on the campaign trail with her fashion: "We are here. We have accomplished a lot. We are not backing down." She is standing on her style soapbox. She will not relinquish the flirty, floral silk dresses for the beltway crowd’s dull, dowdy pantsuits. She will never trade in the coquettish kitten heels for a sensible pump. Not now. Maybe never.

This is a woman who leap-frogged over her chit-chat buddy Oprah and pop diva Beyoncé to land on the tippy top of the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women in the World. She earned it, according to Forbes, with her savvy blend of low-key mom-in-chiefness, stealth co-presidency maneuvers and her facility with fashion. She has taken a page from first ladies like Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Jackie Kennedy. But it might just be the Jackie-ness that proves to be Michelle’s most effective political tool. She uses her style to get our attention, and then she delivers her message.

By style I don’t only mean her casual fashion sense, but style as a form of expressing who you are. What other first lady could casually confide to a room full of female power brokers that sometimes she “likes to just let it hang loose and talk with a bunch of women about the issues that matter most to them,” as Michelle did last week at Maria Shriver’s women’s conference? She might as well have been kicking her shoes off on the South Lawn.

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Kate Betts is a contributing editor at Time magazine and until this year was also the editor of Time Style & Design, a special supplement to the magazine. Previously, Betts was the editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar and the fashion news director of Vogue. She is the author of the book Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, due out February 2011.