First Lady Fashion Fatigue

Michelle Obama is still eminently stylish, but the conversation about her clothes has shifted from meaningful to tedious, writes Robin Givhan.

Cliff Owen / AP Photo

Michelle Obama is not a Barbie doll, a shape-shifting Hollywood starlet, a chameleon model or the female equivalent of Justin Bieber. And so, I have reached a saturation point on the small talk about her clothes. Fashion fatigue has set in. I cannot countenance any more breathless, fanzine-style chronicling of her attire. Surely, I cannot be alone.

To be clear, there is still plenty to be written about the first lady and her wardrobe choices. Clothes are part of the historic record Mrs. Obama will leave behind—regardless of whether her husband is reelected. Whoever occupies the East Wing plays an important role in supporting this country’s fashion industry. And without question, the inaugural gown remains a cultural touchstone.

Sometimes, Mrs. Obama’s clothes convey significant messages about economics, female power, and the potency of the creative spirit. Upon occasion, she has used fashion as silent support of women and minorities, and as a nonverbal rebuke to those who would see the design world as only frivolity and nothing serious. But more often, her clothes are simply lovely frocks, worth admiring in slideshows and picture books, but not worth discussing.

It has been nearly four years since Mrs. Obama stepped into the role of first lady, but she had already been in the public spotlight on the campaign trail long before that. During that time, she captured the eye of fashion aficionados with her eclectic approach to style, her willingness to indulge in trends and the skill with which she used fashion to help shape her public image.

Here was a first lady who not only took apparent pleasure in clothes, but—with her tall, fit physique—also wore them well. In 2009, when she stood alongside her husband as he took the oath of office, she wore a lemongrass-yellow dress and matching coat by Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo. Hers was a savvy fashion choice, one that spoke of the importance of small businesses, female entrepreneurs, and the immigrant experience. Her inaugural gown was equally filled with subtext. Designed by Jason Wu, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, it celebrated the next generation of American designers. For a campaign that had been based on hope and change, the dress announced a shifting of the guard within the fashion industry’s elite.

Mrs. Obama’s lean and sculpted arms were admired, not simply from an aesthetic perspective but because they acknowledged that she was from a generation of post-Title IX women who played sports, lifted weights, and were proud of their athleticism. Whose strong arms also served as emblems of her “Let’s Move” campaign to get the country’s children exercising and eating more healthily.

For a lot of women in their 30s and beyond, who often felt estranged from the fashion industry, Mrs. Obama provided encouragement and reassurance. They, too, could participate. Fashion, from high end to low, had something to offer them.

All of this was good for fashion and it was good for the American woman’s psyche. And indeed, there were times throughout the last four years when Mrs. Obama’s clothes seemed to deliver a particularly important message.

As the country debated immigration reform, her clothes by high-profile designers such as Narciso Rodriguez or Sophie Theallet reminded us of how important immigrants are to Seventh Avenue, where first-generation Americans and recent transplants design, sew, and sell clothes.

It forced us to re-assess precisely what it is that we want the first lady—this symbolic personage—to do on the world stage when, for instance, she stood alongside Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict XVI, or former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Indeed, Mrs. Obama showed how the right fashion choices can serve as a form of diplomacy—representing this nation while respecting the dynamism of another—something that had really not been done since the days of Jacqueline Kennedy.

But somewhere along the way, the attention lavished on the first lady’s wardrobe became indiscriminate. Rather than debating whether a garment was appropriate for an occasion—a legitimate conversation, considering her position—or the possible effect it could have on the economics of the fashion industry, the conversation turned flaccid and banal.

It took on a Hollywood tone. People wanted to know what she was wearing, not because it signified anything, but simply because it was on her back. What did she wear to the last White House Correspondents Dinner, to the Congressional Black Caucus Gala, to the most recent campaign event in Virginia? To the debates? There was an avalanche of obsessing, admiring, and gushing. Every garment is not symbolic. Every dress is not fraught with meaning. But the conversation yammered on even though there was nothing of substance to say. At first it was fun. Then it became a habit. Now, it’s just a bore.

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Early on, it seemed that thanks to the first lady, people were looking at fashion more seriously. They could see how her embrace of J. Crew directly improved that company’s business. They could see how the choice of an evening gown from the British design house Alexander McQueen for a state dinner at the White House raised legitimate questions about nationalism, even patriotism. The shorts she wore while disembarking from Air Force One—while on vacation—pointed to the gray zone that a first lady occupies: Is she a full-time public figure or a part-time one? Just how “regular” can she be or do we want her to be? And Mrs. Obama’s reliance on the simple sleeveless dress opened a dialogue about femininity, power, and the modern workplace.

These were all topics that deserved attention.

But the flood of Joan Rivers-style verbiage about her day-to-day wardrobe has overwhelmed those nuanced conversations. Fashion is fun. But the nonstop attention to Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe isn’t fun; it’s exhausting. It’s too much. And it’s pointless.

The white noise about kitten heels and brooches, cardigans and belts, about who wore what best, about fashion as petty competition has brought the conversation low.

Mrs. Obama is as stylish as ever. Indeed, she has elevated the role that fashion can play in the public image of the first lady. It’s the conversation about her clothes that hasn’t lived up to its potential.