What a difference four years make.
In 2009, Michelle Obama swept onto the stage of the Commander-in-Chief’s Inaugural Ball in a fairy tale one-shoulder white chiffon gown dotted with delicate flowers. On Monday, she emerged at the ball in a flaming ruby-red halter gown that was far more vamp than princess. Jason Wu designed both, but this year’s dress capped an Inauguration Day that saw Obama making bold sartorial choices.
With its Grecian pleating, low back, and cinched waist, the stunning scarlet dress would be equally at home on the red carpet. It was a fitting choice for a woman who has become an international fashion plate.
Just as surprising as the bold color and silhouette was her return to Wu. For weeks, fashion prognosticators assumed she would choose another American designer.
“I think the only predictable thing about Michelle Obama is that she’s good at surprising us, and has made some wonderful, idiosyncratic choices,” said Vogue magazine international editor at large Hamish Bowles on a visit to Boston last week. “She’s good at keeping one guessing.”
True to Bowles’s prediction, the first surprise of Obama’s inaugural fashions was seen at her husband’s swearing-in ceremony. Instead of choosing a rising designer or a designer known for womenswear, the first lady choose Thom Browne, a revolutionary menswear designer who began creating clothes for women in 2010.
The structured navy blue silk jacquard coat and dress showed Browne’s menswear lineage; even the check fabric was inspired by a men’s tie. Obama accessorized the jacket with raspberry leather gloves, a J.Crew belt, and boots from Reed Krakoff. It was a dramatic departure from the bold and bright lemongrass ensemble worn for the 2009 inauguration.
In July, Browne was honored by the first lady as one of the winners of a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum award. She previously wore a Browne-designed lace dress at the most recent Democratic National Convention and later to the final presidential debate.
The 30-year-old Wu skyrocketed to stardom after designing Obama’s 2009 inaugural gown. The first lady has since worn his dresses on the cover of Vogue and on several international trips.
Her love of mixing high-end with mass-market fashion (J.Crew is a first lady favorite) is one reason why she has become a closely followed figure in the fashion world. There are blogs documenting her every look, and designers frequently express their desire to create clothes for her.
“She is much more accessible than previous first ladies,” said Hazel Clark, research chair of fashion at Parsons the New School for Design and a professor in the fashion studies program. “The most obvious point of reference in terms of fashion is Jackie Kennedy, but Michelle dresses in a more accessible way than Jackie.”
While her day-to-day cardigans and kitten heels reflect her role as mom and working professional, Obama has shown extraordinary savvy and taste in choosing gowns and dresses for formal affairs. She’s also an avid supporter and advocate of American designers. While her 2009 inaugural gown pushed designer Wu into the national spotlight, she does not shy away from international fashion.
“She wears things of quality and taste, and those pieces do not have geographical boundaries,” said Simon Collins, dean of Parsons. “For the inaugural ball an American designer is a necessity, but I’m delighted by all of her choices.”
The last time a first lady showed this level of interest in fashion was Nancy Reagan with her much-loved “Reagan red” suits. So, regardless of politics, much of the fashion world is celebrating four more years of Michelle Obama.
“It’s extremely exciting for me at Vogue to have a woman who is so substantive, smart, and dynamic embracing fashion in that way and showing everyone it’s not a trivial thing,” Bowles said. “It’s a life-enhancing thing.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.