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Like It Or Not, Michelle Obama Is Now A Style Icon

Michelle Obama got mixed reviews for the Narciso Rodriguez dress she wore on election night. Now the question is: What will she wear on Inauguration Day?
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Obama got mixed reviews for the Narciso Rodriguez dress she wore on election night. Now the question is: What will she wear on Inauguration Day?

In her native Chicago, Michelle Obama had long been known for cutting a striking figure, favoring emerging local designers, rich colors and what fashionistas have described as a sculpted Windy City silhouette.

But it was a $148 sleeveless black-and-white sundress the soon-to-be first lady wore last June on television gabfest The View that catapulted her into style stardom, accelerating comparisons with the last White House trendsetter, Jacqueline Kennedy.

"She brought a reality fashion factor into the limelight when she made her summer dress statement," says New York City trend expert Tom Julian, who works with clients that include Nordstrom.

Since that pivotal moment — Obama's dress from retailer White House/Black Market sold out almost immediately — her form-fitting sheath dresses, heel heights, jewelry and election night designer frock have been slavishly dissected by everyone from couture mavens to the women of the popular all-things-Michelle Web site Mrs.O.

This is a woman, after all, who in just a few short months has managed to transform the lowly brooch, that dowdy Washington "fashion" mainstay, into a fresh trend.

Vanity Fair has dubbed her "Commander in Sheath." Longtime Wall Street Journal fashion writer Teri Agins recently referred to Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, as a "Baby Boomer Pinup Girl," whose working mom wardrobe savvy has already influenced the design plans of mainstream women's-clothing retailers.

"Everything she's doing shows total independence," says Agins.

And now, with Inauguration Day and its related formal galas just weeks away, the fashion-obsessed have turned their attention to speculation about what the 44-year-old mother of two will wear at the daylong coming-out party for the young and sleek Obamas. Her favorite Chicago designer, Maria Pinto? Couture favorite Narciso Rodriguez, whose design Obama wore election night — prompting spirited debate over whether it was a hit or miss?

A Style All Her Own

Among scores of publications that have been musing about what and who Michelle Obama will wear is the rag trade bible, Women's Wear Daily. It has featured an online slideshow of gown sketches submitted by top designers ranging from Oscar de la Renta, a Laura Bush favorite, to Betsey Johnson, who created a fanciful over-the-top red, white and blue get-up.

"It's exciting," says Mary Tomer, a New York advertising agency account planner who helped found the Mrs.O Web site. "The whole of the country is fascinated with everything about the Obamas, and her style is just part of that."

Why? In addition to Michelle Obama's youth, height (she's about an inch shy of 6 feet), and athletic figure, she's a person who has a strong, real-life fashion sense, says Tomer.

"For the first time in a long time, it's very evident that the new first lady has her own personal style and is not the product of handlers," Tomer says. "She doesn't have a calculated image, and she's broken free of the political uniform of boxy St. John suits." That fashion sense includes putting together outfits from J. Crew — which happily advertises her patronage on its Web site — and wearing bold prints by couture designer Thakoon.

"She's not a slave to designer labels" and has the potential to be a major arbiter of style for middle-aged women, says Agins.

Is it sexist to obsess about an accomplished professional woman's wardrobe?

Tomer doesn't think so. Obama, she says, is showing serious, professional women that they shouldn't be ashamed to also be feminine and stylish.

In fairness, WWD has also featured designer suggestions for President-elect Barack Obama's inaugural wardrobe. But any debate over what he should wear has been largely confined to necessarily smaller style details: whether his designer, Illinois-based Hart Schaffner Marx, which made a number of candidate Obama's campaign-trail suits, should offer up formal attire tails or no tails, bow tie or not. Or maybe even a top hat a la President Kennedy?

Not Just A Dress: It's History, Too

But the calculation for Michelle Obama is infinitely more complicated, as a just reopened first ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution suggests. In a dimly lit nook at the National Museum of American History, the spotlights shine on Laura Bush's sparkly red 2001 inaugural gown, by Dallas designer Michael Faircloth, and Helen Taft's white silk chiffon 1909 gown.

The display includes Rosalynn Carter's 1977 blue inaugural chiffon gown and embroidered coat, which she had worn at her husband's gubernatorial party six years earlier. Though the outfit was panned by the fashion press, Lisa Kathleen Graddy, the exhibit's curator, says she found Carter's sentimental choice "a lovely thought."

Also featured in the collection, which will move to a larger, permanent home when museum renovations are complete, are other first lady special occasion gowns, including an Oleg Cassini-designed yellow silk worn by Kennedy at her first state dinner, as well as everyday items used by the women of the White House: Martha Washington's needle case; Sarah Polk's parasol; Mary Todd Lincoln's gold opera glasses; Edith Wilson's purple-dyed feather fan.

Michelle Robinson Obama's portrait already hangs in the exhibit, right next to Laura Welch Bush's image. And it's intriguing to contemplate what Obama frocks and personal items might one day become part of the collection.

Trend expert Julian says he believes that just as Jackie Kennedy made A-line shapes and pillbox hats a signature and brought Cassini to national note, Obama will bring "sculpted dresses, brooches and emerging names to the White House."

"This could also be an opportunity to showcase more African-American designers," says Julian, referring specifically to Tracy Reese.

Style Icon For All?

Tomer would like to see Obama in winter white chiffon, gathered from an empire waist to one shoulder, with a gray-silver full satin skirt, for the inauguration night festivities.

But no matter what she wears on Jan. 20, Obama during her years in the White House will be an icon for everyone, says Agins, because the first-lady-in-waiting stocks her wardrobe with everything from high fashion to affordable mix-and-match items straight off the rack. And that, says Agins, could present a boon to retailers like Talbots and Ann Taylor, which cater to women of Obama's age.

"This is not a case where Michelle is going to help Narciso [Rodriguez] versus Maria [Pinto] versus J. Crew," Agins says. "Everybody can enjoy some of this, because everybody can lay claim to dressing Michelle Obama."

About that Smithsonian exhibit: Curator Graddy may want to put in her request with Obama now for the black-and-white sundress, the red-and-black Rodriguez election night look and a brooch — or three. And plan to make room for more.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.