Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style

Kate Betts, former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, has composed a beautiful book describing Michelle Obama’s triumphant style.  Throughout the narrative Betts has included historical fashion factoids and how Michelle’s choices influence the modern world.  The book itself, is visually stunning.  Unfortunately, her narrative is conflicting – both repetitive and contradictory.  Admittedly, theSkinnyStiletto awaited this book with anticipation, as we had featured Mrs. Obama as a favorite “Fashion Icon” on President’s Day.  However, our disappointment was magnified by the author’s lack of objectivity.  The most glaring problem with Betts’ work is that her own political bias was apparent from the beginning.  While she is quick to criticize the clothes of Condoleezza Rice, Laura and Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, and – really? – Mary Todd Lincoln, Betts was equally apologetic for Hillary Clinton’s frumpy frocks.  Her repeated efforts at extolling the elegance of Jackie Kennedy and the current Mrs. O were excessive.  (Okay, that’s a given… they probably are our two best-dressed First Ladies).  But here’s an apt example: On pages 180-181, there is a short blurb about the prevalence of pearls in the White House.  Betts gives credit to both Jackie O. and the first Mrs. Bush for making white pearls a First Lady favorite, but says while Jackie’s were “prim and classic,” Bush’s fake pearls caused the look to “lose its luster.”  Um, hate to break it to you Ms. Betts, but Mrs. Kennedy’s weren’t real either.  Jacqueline Bouvier bought them in the 1950s at Bergdorf Goodman for a whopping $35.  This was discovered when the famous three-strand necklace went to auction at Sotheby’s in 1996.  Considering Betts was once the editor-in-chief at a world-famous fashion magazine, we cannot believe she had never heard this juicy tidbit of style history.  So what was her actually point is drawing such a distinction?  Jackie became First Lady at 31; Barbara Bush was considerably older.  Betts’ comparison seemed petulant.

Betts also criticizes the famed fashion guide Dress for Success, written by John T. Molloy, for being outdated.  Considering the first edition was published over 30 years ago (and there was initially only a male edition), it was inevitable that certain trends from the ’70s would have disappeared. However, Betts is off-target for trivializing one of the very books responsible for women succeeding in a post-feminist business-world.  Her own publication has pictures illustrating that Michelle herself was following Molloy’s recommendations when she worked as a Chicago lawyer.  There is no doubt that Mrs. Obama has created her own individual style and that her fashion sense has secured it’s own place in history.  But it’s wrong to dismiss the choices worn by the women who came before her… for they are the very reason she can dress that way at all.  What Betts does well though, is capture the First Lady’s accessibility and common touch.

Putting aside the author’s undeserving critiques of Molloy, groundbreaking women and GOP wives, our biggest concern was Betts’ unfounded insistence that Mrs. Obama “dresses for herself.”  We here at theSkinnyStiletto are huge fans of Michelle and her clothing choices.  We also espouse the idea that women should dress for themselves.  But we are also very much aware that the well-educated, first African-American First Lady, does not dress just for herself.  Mrs. Obama is as shrewd as any politician in Washington.  She retains the services of a stylist and a personal shopper, both of which are befitting a fashionable First Lady.  It is inaccurate to characterize her fashion selections as mere “innate style.”  Oddly enough, Betts’ first chapter describes in detail how Michelle was first viewed as an “angry black woman,” who dressed in nothing but corporate suits when Barack’s campaign began.  As if to further underline how politically astute she is, Mrs. Obama rapidly changed her image and within weeks, adopted a softer, more feminine appeal without sacrificing her sophistication.  Does anyone truly believe that was anything BUT a political move?  To use a quote from her own book (pgs. 158-159), Betts talked to Michelle’s fellow Princeton alum and friend, Karen Jackson Ruffin, who recounted, “She always seemed to know exactly what she was doing, and why she was doing it.”  Mrs. Obama was, is, and remains, well aware of how polarizing politics can be.  She was and is acutely aware of repugnant racists and sexists within our country, those who were just waiting to lampoon her.  Michelle’s response came in equal measures of equanimity and style.  Her business wardrobe was largely relegated to the back of her closet.  The fawning tone of the book was unnecessary.  By contrast, the very idea that a serene, sophisticated First Lady, educated at Princeton and Harvard, who succeeded in the male-dominated bastion of corporate law could be viewed as a reincarnation of Angela Davis is ludicrous.  Somewhere between the fabrications of “60’s radical chic” and Betts’ concept of “innate style” lies the fashion essence of the real Michelle Obama.  We only wish Betts had been capable of identifying it.