Michelle Obama Style: Why We Care Again

The first lady's Alexander McQueen dress sparked rumors that she's ditched her long-time fashion adviser. But Robin Givhan says the mystery of Michelle's evolving wardrobe is more complicated.

Michelle Obama dressed in Alexander McQueen to a state dinner at the White House on Jan. 19, 2011. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo)

Pity the first lady. Every time she pulls a frock from her closet, changes her hairstyle or raises a well-groomed eyebrow, someone somewhere not only parses her decision and weighs its symbolism but also attempts to give it a whiff of scandal, back-room tumult, or something equally unseemly. And right now, there's a pretty pungent odor hovering overhead. Who's her fashion guru? Should she wear only American designers? Why does she insist on dressing for herself and not for the more than 300 million Americans who all feel entitled to weigh in on her appearance and who all seem to think that if they were in her position they could make better choices?

Lest I be hypocritical, let me say right away that there are, of course, occasions when vigorous fashion scrutiny is appropriate and well deserved—the most obvious one is, of course, the inauguration. The gown eventually lands in the National Museum of American History; it should be discussed, analyzed, and debated. And there have been times when the first lady's wardrobe has been cause for a double-take, as when she stepped off Air Force One wearing mid-thigh, casual hiking shorts or when she has worn splendid over-the-knee Jimmy Choo boots. And then there are the firsts: the vintage Norman Norell gown during the holidays, for instance, or the sleeveless Michael Kors, racer-back sheath for her official portrait. It's even worthwhile to debate whether she should always wear American designers—at least on such grand occasions as a formal State Dinner.

But the topic of Michelle Obama's attire, which seemed to have settled into a zone of curious chatter, light banter and, I like to think, measured analysis, seems to once again be taking on the kind of outsize importance it had in the early days of the administration. It's a kind of prominence that Obama had worked mightily to tamp down.

Over the last year, Seventh Avenue managed to calm itself. The first lady liked clothes! Deep breath. She availed herself of trends! Deep breath. In the beginning, it was almost too much for anyone who cared about fashion to bear. Everyone was understandably verklempt. But then folks got used to seeing her bare arms; they understood that she was the kind of modern woman who did not wear pantyhose; and, yes, it seemed that her fashion taste was eclectic, ranging from J. Crew to Azzedine Alaia. Still, the industry managed to get a grip on itself. The online photo galleries were quietly maintained. Conversations about the first lady's clothes didn't end, but people were spending significant time and energy talking about her Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. She's been spending the last month trying to focus public attention on mentoring and on military families and the extreme sacrifices they've been called to make. It seemed that there was balance.

The topic of Michelle Obama's attire seems to once again be taking on the kind of outsize importance it had in the early days of the administration.

But then she wore an Alexander McQueen gown to the State Dinner in honor of China. It was a beautiful and glamorous dress. But of course, some people didn't like it because it was too voluminous or the print was too bold. Or it was simply too much. And then the complaints began to roll in that the dress was from a British fashion house and that the first lady had dissed American designers. Oscar de la Renta was the lead complainant. Certainly, he had a point. China's president had asked for an all-American evening, from the jazz entertainment to the menu. Obama might have worn a gown by Ralph Lauren, whose work has a quintessentially American sensibility.

Indeed, Obama has always made perceptive fashion choices that speak to the occasion, selecting a state wardrobe that celebrates creativity, entrepreneurship and cultural understanding. But she has never been parochial in her choices. She has been firm and consistent in her view of fashion as a global business and, most important, a matter of personal expression. One label regularly in rotation is Moschino, an Italian brand. She's worn it on a host of public occasions. She has worn Jean Paul Gaultier, Dries Van Noten, and other non-American brands. And then there's that love affair with J. Crew. Shall we discuss where it produces its merchandise? The catalogue brags about its Italian fabric mills. It's a point of pride.

Much of the credit for that wide-ranging taste was given to Chicago's Ikram Goldman, the owner of the boutique Ikram, where Obama began shopping back when she was a working mom living in Hyde Park. Goldman's prominence in shaping the first lady's wardrobe was common knowledge, certainly within the fashion industry, although Goldman never discussed it on the record—a fact that one might describe as miraculous in this age of tell-all blogging. She served as a gatekeeper and adviser, friend and designer wrangler. As one might imagine, no matter how graciously, professionally or sternly one manages that position, feathers are sure to be ruffled. And there are no small number of designers, retailers and know-it-alls who take issue with some of Goldman's decisions. No good deed goes unpunished. And no one's good fortune is immune from petty jealousies or criticism.

Goldman understands high-end design; she also understands the power of well-considered style. She sourced young designers for Obama because that sent a message about a fresh start, but Goldman also knew where the greatest fount of creativity was in the fashion industry. It wasn't, by and large, coming from the veterans. It was coming from the kids. She looked for African-American designers because the first lady stands for inclusiveness. Goldman, who will be honored by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May, hasn't been riding herd over the first lady's wardrobe in some time. (The fact that no one really noticed is testament to Obama's personal stake in her own style.) And as far as I know, this is not the result of scandal, merely practicality. Goldman has a family, a heavy travel schedule, and a business to run—one that is expanding into a new, larger space that will include a café. Indeed, she was in Europe working when the first lady presented the Jason Wu-designed inaugural gown, the one Goldman had been so instrumental in organizing, to the Smithsonian.

By last summer, the task had fallen to Meredith Koop, a young White House aide, to source New York designers for a first lady whose wardrobe needs are relentless. And whose fashion choices spark everything from healthy debate to raging brush fires.

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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 and wrote a weekly style column. In 2009, she began covering Michelle Obama and the cultural and social shifts stirred by the first African American family in the White House. Her work has appeared in Harper's Bazaar, American Vogue, Vogue Italia, Elle UK, British Vogue, Essence and the New Yorker. She has contributed to several books including 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.