US First Lady and fashion are no longer so combustible

US First Lady and fashion are no longer so combustible
Fashion is no longer the forbidden subject it once was in American politics.

Embracing expensive designer clothes - and a lot of them - has not been a problem for Michelle Obama in the way that similar pursuits haunted Nancy Reagan, or even Jackie Kennedy.

Changing a hairstyle, as Obama did Thursday, was not the cause for alarm that it was for Hillary Rodham Clinton, even though the president himself was moved to address his wife's new bangs as "the more significant event of this weekend."

This inauguration, in fact, may have been as much an occasion for celebrating the first lady's style as it was President Barack Obama's second term, and it demonstrated, once again, just how cannily she has used fashion to define her image, without becoming defined by it.

Her choices are safe but interesting, with enough of a story and a variety to keep fashion obsessives engrossed. Wearing a broad array of mostly US designers also feeds into the idea that she is doing her part for the fashion industry.

This was certainly the case, perhaps to a fault, Monday, as Michelle Obama gave credit to a large cast of designers in her inaugural wardrobe, beginning with Thom Browne, who made the elegantly tailored coat and dress in a navy silk jacquard that she wore during the day. Her earrings were by Cathy Waterman, and her shoes, at least in the morning, were from J Crew.

She later changed into boots and a cardigan by Reed Krakoff and added to the outfit a sparkly belt from J. Crew, which served no apparent purpose beyond a plug for the retailer, or to remind us that belts are one of her signatures.

Dressing the first lady on any occasion is a windfall for a designer. But creating the inaugural outfit, which goes to the National Archives, can have a lasting effect, as television viewers saw repeatedly in images from 2009  of Michelle Obama in a yellow Isabel Toledo coat and the glittering white inaugural gown that established the career of Jason Wu.

Browne has been designing tightly fitted men's suits in New York for more than a decade, but he is just starting out in women's wear and came to the first lady's attention when he received a National Design Award last year. As has usually been the case, the designer did not know if she would wear the outfit until she appeared in it.

Reached Monday in Paris, where he was showing a men's collection, Browne said, "It's one of those moments when I just can't believe that happened."

Part of what works so well about Obama's fashion sense is the element of surprise. It is no secret that the red carpets of Hollywood were long ago compromised by dealmaking between fashion houses and celebrities, with many actresses being paid to wear what they do. Obama is far above that, and contributes to the sense of an authentic red carpet moment by keeping her choices secret.

This can also be risky (riskier, by far, than Jill Biden's silver silk and wool Lela Rose coat with the big bow), as some opponents of the Obamas complained online during the inauguration about Michelle Obama's presumed spending on clothes and the attention paid to other details of the family's attire.

But the Obamas, in their coordinated outfits, presented a unified front, the daughters wearing fit-and-flare coats and the president in a blue necktie, all in matching tulip shades. Malia Obama wore a purplish coat from J.Crew, having customized the buttons to her own taste, and Sasha Obama wore a violet one from Kate Spade.

They looked much more grown up compared with the inauguration in 2009 - when they also wore coats from J. Crew - and pleased to be following in their mother's fashion footprint.

© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: January 22, 2013 09:00 IST

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