For all the news generated by the Obamas' just-completed tour abroad, I was left with this: Michelle Obama has a style and megawatt charisma not seen on the global stage since Princess Diana gave up on the meringue dresses (and her husband) and started wearing sly little above-the-knee Chanel shifts, and pearls.
The first lady’s fashion impact started on takeoff, with the black and white spring coat and shift by Thakoon she wore aboard the departing Air Force One. In it, she reminded me of Jackie Kennedy on her way to wow Europe nearly 50 years ago. The arrival outfit in London, a vivid chartreuse-colored dress and black coat by Jason Wu (cinched with the studded Azzedine Alaia belt the president dubbed her “Star Trek belt”) was, as with all Michelle Obama’s ensembles during her visit, pitch-perfect.
Rather than simply mimic the sad, saggy beige cashmere of yesteryear, the first lady took a grand old British tradition, turned it on its head, and gave it major spin.
Every outfit made her look startlingly approachable, modern, self-determined—and above all, fun. This first lady is no stiff-lacquered fashion victim. But it was her various cardigans and signature double rope of pearls (real or false?) that were especially clever. After all, what did the fashionable Sloane Rangers of southwest London, for whom Diana was the archetype and icon, famously wear? Cardigans and pearls.
Rather than simply mimic the sad, saggy beige cashmere of yesteryear, the first lady stepped right into the capital of Sloane-dom, took a grand old British tradition, turned it on its head and gave it major spin. Visiting a cancer-care center with Sarah Brown, Gordon Brown’s shyly charming, soberly suited wife, Michelle Obama wore a glittering beaded and sequined pink J. Crew cardigan with a shiny mint-green gingham pencil skirt, sexy metallic-snakeskin pumps and bare legs. Sarah Brown sensibly stuck to her usual plain no-nonsense suits and dresses. (I dread to think what Cherie Blair would have come up with had she still been in Downing Street—it would have probably started with white pixie boots.)
Another cardigan—a supremely sexy black cropped version by Azzedine Alaia—came out for Michelle Obama’s most challenging engagement, tea with the Queen. You don’t upstage Her Royal Majesty—less is far, far more. This little cardigan was plain, but charming and sexy, worn over a black and white "tuxedo tank" dress with a flirty tulle petticoat, by Isabel Toledo. Plus, that double rope of pearls. The cardigan came out again, over a white pussycat-bow blouse, in Prague, as did the pearls, and the black and white dress. I found it exceptionally modern: Here is a woman who doesn’t need to change every ten minutes to prop up her self-esteem. She’s got far better things to do with herself than clothes-horse about, ten paces behind her husband.
A year ago, Carla Bruni created waves in London with her Professional Virgin/Miss Marple-like demure Christian Dior outfits (an effect slightly undercut at the time by an old nude picture of her published full frontal in most of the tabloids). You felt she had been styled out of her comfort zone. Chic? Yes. Real? No. With Michelle Obama on the other hand, you get the impression that she has chosen and bought her own clothes and that she forgets them once she’s dressed in the morning. When Bruni and Michelle Obama met in Strasbourg, the first lady of France seemed cast out of an Agatha Christie novel in a clunky, belted beige velvet coat with a huge drooping pussycat bow, while the American chose a marvelous black satin coat, roses randomly scattered all over it, which then revealed a bright rose pink satin dress with still more scattered flowers.
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In an era when most female politicians look either as if they are trying too hard in disastrously fitting “glass-ceiling” pantsuits, showing far too much cleavage in knit-your-own tea sweaters, or not trying at all in frilly, early-period Princess Diana no-iron blouses, Michelle Obama looks as if she’s given the concept of first lady serious thought, wardrobe-wise, and decided how to play it. Then she gets on with her real life.
Meredith Etherington-Smith is the London-based editor of Christie’s magazine, and wrestles on a daily basis with the topic of taste in art, antiques, decoration and fashion. She has written several books and helmed many documentaries on fashion, design, and beauty for Channel 4 and HBO.