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11.08.10

Michelle Obama and Jackie O.'s India Fashion Face-Off

As the Obamas arrive in Indonesia, Kate Betts looks back at how Michelle's style choices in India measure up to Jackie's famous 1962 trip to the subcontinent—when she took first lady fashion global—and finds that Mrs. Obama is lifting style diplomacy to a whole new level. Plus, see pictures of both women's trip wardrobes.

When Jacqueline Kennedy visited India with her sister Lee in 1962, she embraced the culture in a way few presidents’ wives ever had. She visited children’s hospitals, practiced yoga, rode an elephant, floated down the Ganges, and wore a red tilak dot on her forehead. The crowds shouted, “Jackie Ki Jai!” wherever she went. But Jackie didn’t go quite as far as our own fearless first lady went on her weekend visit to Mumbai and Delhi. Kennedy certainly didn’t kick off her shoes and dance like Michelle Obama did on Saturday afternoon while visiting with children from the Make a Difference program at the University of Mumbai. After a game of barefoot hopscotch, the first lady picked up a tambourine and broke into song, the kids gathering around her as she grooved to the blockbuster Bollywood beat.

Of course Jackie’s time was very different, as was her style. While Jackie was formal, Michelle is the queen of casual. Jackie’s fashion diplomacy was telegraphed in the perfectly pressed dresses in shades of melon and peony—the colors of India—matching hats and crisp white gloves. But Michelle takes style diplomacy to a whole new level, using her every gesture and movement to connect with people.

First there is the fashion. On this front, the first lady’s trip to India started off with all of the stately touches one would expect. She arrived in Mumbai on Saturday wearing a slim gray tunic dress punctuated with pearl buttons, a clear reference to the traditional Indian Kurti tunic. After a somber visit to the 26/11 Memorial at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, the Obamas made a stop at the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum, where the first lady signed the guestbook, writing, “this visit will be one that I will always treasure.”

By the end of the first day, Michelle was already cutting loose, changing out of her more conservative arrival outfit into something more casual (J. Crew, of course), kicking off her shoes, and dancing the Bhangra folk dance with the MAD kids, swaying to the music and flicking her wrists.

The next day Michelle surprised even her husband at a Diwali party in a local school where kids were doing the traditional Koli dance. Michelle joined right in, shaking her hips and laughing while a bunch of boys coerced the president onto the dance floor. They were great moves: The Indian press went crazy. “Dancing Queen rocks India, Michelle Wows with moves on and off the floor,” read the Page 1 headline on The Times of India. Who says a somber speech is the only way to impart a serious message about women’s education in a country where many struggle to continue school past eighth grade? Why not bust a move instead, and then talk about how women need to be powerful and strong?

Gallery: Michelle vs. Jackie

Michelle Obama Wows IndiaSeveral Indian bloggers wondered why Michelle didn’t don a traditional sari for the more formal state dinner. Perhaps they didn’t recognize her stealth tactics. Did they not remember the lemongrass inaugural outfit? The one for which the color was chosen specifically because it represented rebirth and renewal? Or what about the glittering gold bangles she wore on one arm at the first White House state dinner, in honor of India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh? Not the obvious sari, but an accessible, universal gesture of Indian craftsmanship nonetheless. This trip’s wardrobe was packed with discreet messages of collaboration and understanding. For a visit to Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi on the second day of her visit, the first lady nodded to the country’s vibrant color palette with a turquoise Peter Som dress and a matching cardigan. Later that evening, for dinner with the prime minister and his wife, Michelle changed into a black Dries Van Noten jacket elaborately embroidered with gold and silver Indian thread and finished off with an Art Deco necklace by the Indian designer Ranjana Khan.

This trip’s wardrobe was packed with discreet messages of collaboration and understanding.

Poonam Bhagat, a Delhi-based designer, told the Times of India that the printed Dries skirt and black top the first lady wore to the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum made her look too “girl next door.” Perhaps that’s the point: She’s keeping it low-key so as not to complicate the easy connections she makes. Maybe dancing is part of that look, too. Style is about so much more than what you wear. Jackie knew that and, clearly, Michelle does too.

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.