Michelle Obama’s Fashion Message Is Priceless

Photos of the first lady frolicking in Spain wearing Gaultier are sparking media outrage. But critics fail to see the powerful message her appearance carries for young women, says Kate Betts.

John Nazca / Reuters

Marie Antoinette had Rose Bertin to sort out her wardrobe, and Michelle Obama has the Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman. But that's where the similarities between the two powerful and historically significant women end—although you could also argue that the young dauphine and the first lady both share a certain sartorial boldness.

Over the weekend some in the media called the first lady a modern-day Marie Antoinette for taking her daughter, some friends, and full-time security to Spain for a weekend vacation while Americans struggle with a lousy economy. The sojourn stirred up the first real public criticism of Mrs. Obama since she stepped into her highly scrutinized role a year and a half ago. The issue at hand is the purportedly high cost of the trip at a time when unemployment is stuck at 9.6 percent. Why she took her group on such a lavish tour was relentlessly questioned, until Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that the destination was chosen because a recently widowed family friend from Chicago had promised to take her daughter to Spain for her birthday. Mrs. Obama agreed to join them. It was a private trip.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Michelle Obama's Fashion

But nothing about the first lady's life is really private, so it wasn't long before photos of her and daughter Sasha and their entourage romping on the beach and touring the Alhambra were pinging around the Internet. And the much-publicized prices of the five-star hotel rooms at Marbella's Villa Padierna sent columnists and cable talk-show hosts into spasms of sticker shock.

But to my mind the real issue is not hotel room rates or vacation destinations or whether the first lady is politically tone-deaf. The real issue is that Mrs. Obama is not playing the traditional White House hostess role. She's writing her own rules, doing things her way—all with a seemingly effortless sense of style. Whether she's touching the queen, leaping barefoot across the South Lawn, or throwing out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game, she does it with style and confidence and that is rare. She breaks the rules and she looks good doing it, perhaps too good. And therein lies the rub: The public wants their first lady to look good, but not too good. A year ago, critics slammed her for wearing hiking shorts in the Grand Canyon; today they call her glitzy for wearing Gaultier in Spain. Who said fashion wasn't fickle?

Although it seems frivolous to some, the first lady's style is incredibly important because it sets the emotional tone of her husband's administration. This has been true since the earliest days of our Founding Fathers, when style played a crucial if symbolic role in politics. Martha Washington dressed in homespun clothing to differentiate herself from royalty. Dolley Madison used her personal style to convey a mix of democratic warmth and royal opulence. Even Rosalynn Carter, who was pooh-poohed for recycling her drippy inaugural gown during a recession, made a point of showing up at the White House with her own sewing machine, as if to say, "Hey, I make my own clothes," although of course she was more interested in making policy.

Like Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Obama is way too smart to ignore the power of visual communication in our culture. Say what you will about her personal style, but her wardrobe—a canny calculation of high and low fashion—is carefully attuned to our tough economic times. During the campaign she outwitted the free-spending vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin by showing up on Jay Leno in a $340 J. Crew outfit. Once in the White House, she hosted Nancy Reagan for lunch wearing a floral Gap cardigan that didn't cost more than $40. And, more recently, she stepped off the plane in Mexico in April wearing a $275 Tracy Reese dress. When she does spend the big bucks on clothing—and she was a corporate lawyer and a hospital administrator, so she did make her own money—she splurges on young American fashion designers, promoting them more than anybody else in the fashion firmament does. At the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last May, she greeted other first wives in Thakoon's $2,075 Ikat print plissé number. She even repeats these pricey outfits. The peach-colored Moschino skirt she wore to lunch with King Juan Carlos was last seen at a joint session of Congress back in September.

Can't we just accept that Michelle Obama is someone who loves fashion? Is that OK, or do we puritans have to make excuses for it? Women who love fashion spend money on fashion. That's no secret. Mrs. Obama knows this—her mother once scolded her for spending all her money on a Coach handbag. And thankfully, times really have changed since Mrs. Reagan was called out for receiving a gift of $45,000 worth of Galanos. Dress codes are much less formal and, thanks to H&M, Zara, and the Gap, fashion is no longer solely the province of modern-day Marie Antoinettes.

Say what you will about her personal style, but her wardrobe—a canny calculation of high and low fashion—is carefully attuned to our tough economic times.

More important, what critics of Mrs. Obama have forgotten is that style matters for women in high-profile positions, not just for the pageantry and the symbolism of it, but also for the lessons it can impart. Perhaps there was nothing to be learned from Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton's $2,000 Oscar de la Renta pantsuits, because they didn't have much invested in the way they looked. But critics of Mrs. Obama fail to see the powerful message of self-possession that her appearance carries for millions of young women, especially African-American women. Style and the care you put into how you present yourself to the world are not just frivolous endeavors, they are powerful tools of communication. Mrs. Obama uses her own image and appearance to connect with other women and to teach them how to take care of themselves, how to improve their lives. That look is not expensive; it's priceless.

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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.