In the hallowed halls of government and in dressing rooms from sea to shining sea, there continues to be an issue so controversial that it’s ripping red state from blue state while precariously juggling within its slippery grip the fate of society as we know it: Michelle Obama’s status as the First Lady of Fashion!
Forget New York Fashion Week, I’m talking about the ultimate catwalk of influence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. From the second we met the future FLOTUS, Mrs. O. was instantly christened a “Fashion Icon—PERIOD—NOT UP FOR DEBATE—END OF STORY—NOW FALL PROSTRATE.” Regardless of if it’s her whimsical J. Crew and Gap duds, the convention night Narcisco Rodriguez dress that looked as though she had gotten into a fight with a can of red paint, those flirty short-shorts, the stunning Inaugural gown, or every other closely chronicled cardigan, shift dress, and tailored pantsuit from her closet, Michelle has been repeatedly canonized by a media and public desperately scavenging for the Second Coming of Jackie Kennedy.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the last two years and have any doubt about this, I’d refer you to www.mrs-o.org, which archives the First Lady’s moment-to-moment wardrobe changes, and the critically acclaimed companion book, Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy by Mary Tomer (only two of the many blogs and books dedicated to the subject; all only to be amped up by the highly anticipated Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style by Kate Betts coming next February).
I totally understand this starvation (and OVER-REACTION) for a new fashion role model. True and original style is all but dead on many fronts in today’s society, not least of which on Red Carpets and most certainly on our Main Streets. It’s sad that the most notable fashion exemplars young kids (or any of us) have to look up to these days are the latest Disney crooners (UH, I don’t think so!) or The Real Housewives.
And, let’s face facts, it’s been a while since someone who cared about fashion has resided in The White House (OH, How I miss you, Nancy!).
Today, the only people benefitting from this disturbing national deficit in taste are the celebrity stylists (Hi, Rachel Zoe! xo) cashing in on all those stars who can’t seem to dress themselves anymore. Therefore, in this new era we need a revolutionary in fashion once more, one with innate style, who will take responsibility and declare, THE BUCK STOPS AT MY CLOSET!
The Office of First Lady is the most natural place to look for just such a leader. Where the current tenant is concerned, let’s start from a place of: Michelle Obama clearly loves clothes and understands fashion; that much is obvious.
And, most of the time, the First Lady is on target (even when wearing Target, or H&M), trendsetting with her experimentation of bold patterns and fearless use of color.
Yet the minute you affix the most overused adjective of modern celebrity culture, “Icon,” to any headliner these days, their face value is automatically cheapened.
Unfortunately, the word has little real meaning anymore because just about every publicist, reporter, and public figure out there has bastardized it to within an inch of its former glory, all to further inflate already bloated egos (i.e., Sorry, but you little blood-sucking boy wonders and moody vamps with high-priced stylists and borrowed designer rags are not Fashion Icons, even though you’re rewarded with the accolade time and time again. Trendy, yes. Rocking a fad, yes. Cute, sure. Desperate for attention, ABSOLUTELY. But iconic? No, no, no.)
Therefore, to box Michelle Obama into a crowded corner with the label “Fashion Icon” is unfair to her and to us.
Now, before I go any further, a warning to all you Obama-haters: My exploration of Mrs. O.’s closet here is in no way meant to pop any more ammunition into your slanted slingshots. Rather, I want to make sure she gets a fair shake, as opposed to a patronizing, free ride into the Fashion Hall of Fame.
Of course, the ultimate benchmark for political wives and wannabe fashion icons everywhere is Mrs. Kennedy with her tailored suits, oversized shades, and pillbox hats, not to mention the incomparable aura of chic she exuded during her incarnation as Jackie O. Her contribution to the fashion industry in terms of inspiration alone is incalculable and still stronger than ever now, some fifty years after we first got to know her.
To outright say (or blatantly allude that) Michelle Obama is the Second Coming of Jackie is not only unimaginative and lazy rhetoric, it is also insulting to the current First Lady who clearly is forging her own unique catwalk through history.
What then has been Michelle Obama’s greatest contribution to fashion during her first two years in the public eye?
Well, it’s not the designer labels she wears, or even her generous penchant for launching the careers of unknown designers (You’re welcome, Jason Wu!). Nor is it the (divisive/premature/misguided) label of ICON carelessly slapped on her forehead, which has become her version of the Nobel Peace Prize handed to her at the dawn of her White House tenure. Anyone who can afford a high-powered stylist can achieve all this, more or less.
Instead, to date, Michelle Obama’s most important contribution as a revolutionary figure in the multi-billion dollar fashion industry has been her choice to frequently wear everyday pieces from stores the rest of us can actually afford to shop at when we go to the mall. She has also mastered the ultimate mark of innate style: flawlessly pairing ready-to-wear with high fashion. This includes following suit in dressing her daughters.
For this, I offer her a big Thank You Very Much on behalf of fashionistas on a budget. While other First Ladies may have done this under the radar, Mrs. O. has made dressing well on the cheap an art form.
Her choice to slum it on occasion with the rest of us is significant on a few fronts: One, it sends a powerful message that the First Lady of the United States walks among us (whether that’s literally true or only metaphorically apt of this millionaire is not necessarily important). Two, it gives her fans the rare opportunity to buy the exact same clothes as she has (rather than cheap knock-offs). Three, most significantly, Michelle’s talent for transforming everyday clothing into the new couture has inspired people (even label snobs) to get excited once again about exploring fashion as wearable art available to all.
BUT, does all this hoopla make our current First Lady a “Fashion Icon”? No, not yet. Though it does make her a fashion pioneer, for starters. At the least, this refreshing maneuver amidst ready-to-wear, off-the-rack threads buys her a ticket onto the road towards being a Fashion Icon.
However, there is a bump on this catwalk through The White House. While it’s great to see Michelle dressing in mainstream brands, or at least in those with names we can pronounce, I still must use terms like cheap and affordable somewhat loosely when discussing her wardrobe. Consider that a Mrs. O. sweater from J. Crew costing a few hundred dollars is certainly more accessible than one with a four-digit designer price tag, it still remains a luxury that many Americans cannot afford, especially these days.
I have to remind myself that progress often comes in baby steps, especially in the closets of real life. So, I offer the following advice to FLOTUS to help her take her Fashion for the People crusade to the next level of fabulous:
Michelle, if you really want to advance your status as the First Lady of Fashion (and inch closer to becoming a bona fide Fashion Icon), I suggest a logical next step for you is to be photographed in a Goodwill Store or Salvation Army shop buying a pair of jeans or comfy cardigan. Nothing says “I’m one of you, AND I understand true style” like a hawt, $5.99 pair of perfectly worn-in, used Levis (my favorite). If you can pull this off (and I have every confidence if anyone can, you can), you’ll be on the fast track to fashion sainthood for sure.
As for our relentless search for the Second Coming of Jackie Kennedy, maybe we need to spend more time celebrating and developing original ideas in fashion (and everywhere else!), such as what Mrs. O. is accomplishing with her everyday mix-and-match approach, rather than constantly styling the bejesus out of celebrities all so they can look like something we’ve already seen before. Maybe then we can finally reclaim “Fashion Icon” and reward worthy individuals with a term that has authentic meaning again.
On the other hand, have we even considered the frightening possibility that Michelle Obama may have zero interest in being christened a “Fashion Icon”? Maybe for her, fashion is simply fun. WOW, now there’s a novel concept!
John Schlimm is a member of one of the oldest brewing families in the United States, meaning he sees life through sudsy, gold-colored glasses. A former celebrity publicist, educator, and artist, John is the award-winning author of several books, including his latest, Harrah’s Entertainment Presents…The Seven Stars Cookbook as well as The Ultimate Beer Lover’s Cookbook (named “Best Beer Book in the U.S.” and “Best Beer Book in the World” by the international Gourmand Awards).