Four More Years

Michelle Obama’s Signs of Fashion Restraint on Election Night

The first lady appeared onstage for the president's victory speech in a dress she wore for the first time two years ago. By Isabel Wilkinson.

Jewel Samad / Getty Images

The hard work paid off. After months on the campaign trail, jokes and jibes and stump speeches and long lines, the election has been won: Barack Obama is our president for four more years, and Michelle Obama our first lady.

“Michelle, I’ve never loved you more,” The president said to his wife in his victory speech. “I’ve never been prouder than to watch our country fall in love with you.”

Indeed, the first lady shone bright onstage in Chicago in the wee hours of Wednesday night. But as the fashion world waited with bated breath to see what she would wear, they should have guessed it: the new Michelle is all about restraint. Surprisingly, she recycled a metallic raspberry-colored dress by Michael Kors that she wore for the first time in 2010. She put a black cardigan on top, and wore black kitten heels. It was an understated, economical choice at the culmination of a campaign that, for the first lady, has been about just that.

One of the most indelible images of the election season was a picture of the President and his daughters, Sasha and Malia, watching Michelle onstage at the Democratic National Convention from a couch at the White House. It was a private moment of pride, in which we saw a mother’s poise and elegance reflected in the faces of her daughters. And Michelle's performance at the DNC was the highlight of a campaign that, for her, has been all about relating to American voters.

When Obama took office in 2009, Michelle became the great experimenter of fashion, the great celebrator of little-known talent. Here was a first lady willing to style herself in a creative way (albeit with the help of a stylist): a little belt here, a cardigan there; a designer you've never heard of next to a brand you love. Her style was always a surprise, and it sent the message to Americans that expensive labels aren’t a requisite to style. First ladies, Michelle seemed to say, don’t have to look like Barbara Bush. She became a champion of the high-low mix, wearing her Alaia with J. Crew.

But something funny happened to Michelle Obama’s style on the 2012 trail. She became a symbol of affordable fashion. Her style choices were more cautious and economical. She chose a dress for the DNC that was said to be available for less than $500 soon after, and wore it with J.Crew heels. She recycled a distinctive dress twice within the span of a single month. And she appeared in a dress from Miss Wu, Jason Wu’s contemporary line, which isn’t hitting stores till January (thanks to a personal gift from the designer). She chose several pieces on the trail that were American, commercial bets such as Michael Kors, BCBG, Diane von Furstenberg, and J.Crew. It sent a message of accessibility in the face of economic hardship. These were clothes that both the fashion world could appreciate, that wouldn’t alienate voters. And it worked.

So ecstatic were her fans that even the gray nail polish she wore onstage at the DNC became a talking point after the convention. But as Robin Givhan pointed out this week, the conversation about Michelle's style has become a little too frenetic. “I have reached a saturation point on the small talk about her clothes,” Givhan writes. “Fashion fatigue has set in.” The coverage, she writes, “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.” And it’s true: sometimes a nice dress is just a nice dress.

Ann Romney, on the other hand, has had a more complicated relationship with style on the trail. Initially, she appealed to her constituents: there were mom jeans around moms, business suits around professional women. She exuded less a sense of personal style than the feeling that she was auditioning for the job of first lady. And by the end of the campaign, she had actually figured it out: she was brushing up on her Shakespeare—and proving that, in some small way, she could at least look the part.

But relative next to our toned and styled first lady, it was stodgy and frumpy. Romney is a longtime fan of Alfred Fiandaca, a 72-year-old designer with boutiques in Boston and Palm Beach who has dressed political women such as Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan. In his designs, Mrs. Romney represented more of the same. “It’s about investment dressing,” Fiandaca told The New York Times of his style strategy. “And it might be a little more than J.Crew or whatever but it doesn’t fall apart.”

When she appeared onstage in Boston at the end of Mitt’s concession speech at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, Ann looked exhausted but beautiful in a bright red boat-neck dress and a strand of clear beads. She wore her hair in an up-do that (finally, a little bit) was coming undone.