by Kuae Kelch Mattox
I have to admit. It’s hard for me to stomach another article about Michelle Obama’s clothing, let alone an entire book. I’m always the one who tells friends to “give it a rest” when they start the conversation with “Did you see what she wore?" I have implored folks to elevate the discussion to reflect more of her substance. I have knocked the fashionistas for making a big whoop over the First Lady’s fashions and chastised the Black Artists Association for lamenting that she didn’t wear inaugural outfits by African American designers. Now here I am reviewing “Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion ” (HarperCollins), a book that heralds Mrs. Obama’s uber popular sense of fashion and style. Go figure.
Despite my skepticism, author Mandi Norwood, a former editor at Mademoiselle, manages to deftly weave together a tapestry of fabrics, colors and designers into a one-stop chronicle of Michelle Obama’s blast onto the fashion stage, detailing the enormous impact the First Lady’s clothing choices have made on the fashion world and in closets across the country. Take Mrs. Obama’s national daytime TV debut on ABC’s The View, wearing a $148 black and white sheath from the boutique chain White House, Black Market. Stores fielded thousands of calls from viewers before the show was even over, traffic on the website spiked and droves of women flocked to the stores. Norwood says Mrs. Obama’s choice of dress helped change the tone of what America thought about her.
“Mrs. Obama’s appearance on The View was a triumph. She had reached out and held hands with a critical mainstream audience. What’s more, she was softly spoken and styled in a way that was aspirational and accessible – to everyone,” writes Norwood.
Similarly, she dazzled a late night audience with a J. Crew outfit ordered online just days after Republican Party vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin had been lambasted in the press for spending more than $150,000 of the party’s money on clothing and accessories. Norwood says it was a “turning point for American style makers who have historically feared being linked with the forty plus market…Mrs. Obama’s style, the fashion community was realizing with amazement and delight, was truly authentic.”
Michelle Style is organized by significant events and color palettes, one chapter chronicling Mrs. Obama’s decision to wear purple on the final primary night, another her “Blue Debut” on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention.
“Sparkling and svelte in a silk crepe sheath dress in the most regal of purples, Mrs. O, similar in height and as forceful a presence in front of the camera or up there on the stage, appeared as presidential as her husband,” Norwood writes.
In a chapter dubbed “Orange Punch,” Norwood wonders if Mrs. Obama’s choice of an outfit in the “color of freedom” for a speech at a 2008 Congressional Black Caucus dinner was a “pointed and political gesture.” Mrs. Obama’s clothes, writes Norwood, “were often and subtly used to send a message. She wore high-end designer clothing as well as mid-priced labels from the mall. She wore pieces we knew she loved because they looked great, not because they were expensive or expected…and on the rare occasion her choice fell short of universal appeal, she garnered admiration for at least taking a risk and demonstrating her individuality.”
The book details many of the little things for which Mrs. Obama has become known, her adoration with brooches, classic sheath dresses, stylish flats, floral patterns and flattering three quarter length sleeves, written in break away sections called “What Mrs. O Knows.” Norwood says Mrs. Obama’s fashion wisdom includes the knowledge that tall women look best when they wear belts, cheaper clothes can be elevated with the simplest of touches, and of course, every woman has the right to bear arms, especially if they look as good as hers.
Now…women who want to “gag themselves with a spoon” over the media adulation of our new First Lady will no doubt frown upon this book, for its tendency to fawn over Mrs. Obama could make even the moderate FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) lover want to sometimes…well, gag themselves with a spoon. Remember that Election Night victory dress, the red and black Narcisco Rodriguez sheath that made many folks cringe? Norwood writes “Whether we loved or loathed the dress, we were exhilarated that Michelle Obama had given American fashion the ultimate fist bump, and proved herself a fashion risk taker and mold breaker.”
Norwood taps into a wide range of designers who praise Mrs. Obama for her fashion forward approach. Says Isaac Mizrahi: “Michelle Obama is our shining hope for the future. She represents a new way of thinking in every way from politics to fashion.” Designer Tory Burch: “I love that Michelle is not afraid to take risks. She wears bold color and has a strong sense of her own personal style.” From Nicole Miller, “Michelle Obama is a true independent. She isn’t locked into wearing couture or super expensive clothes…and she has no fear of color.”
There is no denying the indelible mark that Mrs. Obama has made in the fashion world, one in which even the Kmart shopping mom set can relate. Whether it is an earring, a pin, or a $450 pair of sneakers, heads will continue to turn. Her fashion choices reveal a woman who appears to be comfortable in her own skin, who doesn’t want to sacrifice practicality over style, who wears clothing in which she feels comfortable, and with dignity and grace. Yet I am quietly hoping that the Michelle Obama fashion frenzy will pass, or at least simmer down. I’m much more interested in her passion for community service, her inroads with military families and her efforts to break down barriers. Enough already.