04.12.11

Michelle Obama's Uncensored Fashion Choices

Michelle Obama just rolled out Joining Forces, an initiative to help military families. But it's only a matter of time before we start talking about her clothes again—because they offer the most human, nonpolitical glimpse of the first lady, says Robin Givhan.

At the White House, when Michelle Obama unveiled her second major initiative as first lady—this one in support of military families—the East Room, with its sparkling chandeliers and potted ferns, was particularly thick with dignitaries. For the sweeping project, Obama partnered with vice-presidential spouse Jill Biden, who has been a longtime advocate for service members and whose son Beau was deployed to Iraq.

Veterans from the various branches of the military, bigwigs from the worlds of business and communications, and an array of Cabinet members also were perched on gilded chairs for an announcement that was years in the making. From the beginning of her husband’s administration, Mrs. Obama made it clear that she would focus on military families and childhood obesity. With the launch of “Joining Forces,” she has now made good on the second part of that promise—“the moment we’ve been working for, for such a long time,” Mrs. Obama said.

The first lady and Dr. Biden were each introduced by their respective husband and so the afternoon event had the added firepower of both Vice President Biden and President Obama.

“The vice president and I are the warmup acts today,” the president joked.

But even the far-reaching, high-level support Mrs. Obama has mustered for military families and the righteousness of her call for empathy and gratitude are unlikely to divert the public’s and the media’s attention from her belts and bangles, sheaths and ball gowns.

At least not for very long.

During her more than two years in the White House, the first lady has offered the public ample topics for debate and dissection beyond her wardrobe. And for a while, attention was almost solely focused on “ Let’s Move,” her garden, and the fight against childhood obesity. But as the garden matured and her anti-obesity initiative became a story of incremental developments and political debates, the talk returned to her clothes because that conversation provided something that all the other ones did not.

Gallery: First Lady Fashion

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The choices Mrs. Obama makes about her attire are inherently personal—and by her own admission are driven by nothing more than her own mood, preferences, and sensibilities. As she has said so often, she is motivated solely by what she likes. And those choices are often surprising and unconventional. The clothes offer the most human, nonpolitical glimpse of the first lady.

While the unwritten rule for the issues the East Wing takes on is to first do no harm to the administration’s political standing, her clothes remain her most uncensored form of communication. Whether it is her sexy over-the-knee Jimmy Choo boots, her informal hiking shorts upon deplaning from Air Force One, or all those sleeveless dresses, the choices are symbolic, but not political. Most important: They are not safe.

When she wore an Alexander McQueen dress to the China state dinner, the decision was given outsize attention. Were people really that concerned that the first lady might have insulted the entire American fashion industry by that choice? Or were they simply astonished that she had the audacity to choose a dress based on personal preference and without regard to political ramifications? Observers obsess about her clothes in the same way that the president’s basketball and golfing habits are painstakingly examined. (Where were the women during those presidential pickup games?) It’s all a hunt for some unvarnished, unexpected truth.

Should the first lady finally retire that wide Azzedine Alaïa belt—the one the president refers to as her “Star Trek” belt? In the blogosphere, over cocktails and even in the White House press room, the fashion talk rages on. Not simply because it is light-hearted and entertaining, but also because it’s instructive. It fills a void and feeds a hunger for something that is not shrouded in statistics, task forces, and synergistic partnerships.

“Joining Forces” will include a series of public service announcements featuring the likes of Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey highlighting all that military families deal with on a daily basis. Educators will be coached on how best to support students who struggle with the absence of parents who have been deployed once, twice, three times, or more. And employers have been asked to make a commitment to ensure that spouses don’t lose their jobs when they are forced to relocate because of the demands of military service.

The initiative aims to deal with everything from encouraging parent-teacher conferences via Skype to improving mental health services for members of the military and their family. In essence, the first lady is attempting to teach empathy to school districts, corporations, and individuals. If an overwhelmed parent whose spouse is deployed can’t mow the lawn, lend a helping hand, for goodness’ sake!

Whether it is her sexy over-the-knee Jimmy Choo boots or all those sleeveless dresses, the choices are symbolic, but not political. Most important: They are not safe.

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Landov (2); Getty Images

With the launch of “Joining Forces,” there’s plenty to discuss. And if Mrs. Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity is any indication, public attention will turn to the travails of military families, neighborhood organizations will soon announce grassroots shows of support, more celebrities will sign on as spokespeople, corporations will be drawn into service—whether by moral obligation or the lure of the spotlight.

Eventually, though, “Joining Forces” will become a story of incremental developments and political debates. And the conversation will come back around to the first lady’s clothes. Not because folks have ceased to care about the families of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But because the power of those clothes to communicate something unvetted and uncensored is irresistible.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She contributed to Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers, and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers. She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady. In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, DC.