Michelle O set the bar high

Lisa Armstrong takes a look at Michelle Obama, the departing First Lady of the United States who proved loving fashion is no longer a feminist crime

The next female occupant of the White House will present a starkly different interpretation of influence from Michelle Obama: Melania Trump’s trophy contouring.

Is it bad to set this in the context of their personal style? Not when it illuminates so much about their respective characters. As a former film extra and a model respectively, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford both knew how to strike a pose. Is it a coincidence that both are seen as exemplary examples of the Flotus genus?

Even Laura Bush, who back in 2000 declared she would not be putting herself up for discussion as a fashion plate, was sufficiently savvy about the power of elegance to be always impeccably turned out — an emblem of constancy and poise in the very obvious absence of her husband’s.

Michelle Obama had no such issues with being seen as a fashion plate.

Even Jackie Kennedy, commonly cited as the most enduringly stylish First Lady — time will tell whether Mrs O rivals her — was far more circumscribed and conservative in comparison.

The very scale and conviction of Mrs O’s gusto has been interesting to behold. One of the most highly educated first ladies, she never seems to have suffered from Hillary anxieties that an interest in frocks might diminish her authority. Perhaps she recognised that fashion had become part of water-cooler conversation and that to set her face against it would make her seem aloof.

Sometimes her willingness to explore the routes and occasional cul de sacs where an enthusiasm for new design ideas can lead, has seemed almost reckless. That slashed metallic tweed jacket she wore over skin-tight, pewter leggings at the Kids Choice Awards in 2012 was borderline wacky. On the other hand, it probably broke some ice.

The black cardi she wore to meet the Queen in 2009? Oscar de la Renta, spoke for some traditionalists when he sniffed: “You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater.”

It probably depends on the sweater. Mrs O’s was Alaia, which probably means she didn’t see much change from $1000: she wasn’t afraid to spend, even at the height of austerity and amid sanctimonious displays of frugality elsewhere. But that cardi helped redefine what formal dressing looks like in the 21st century. It also made the otherwise charming de la Renta look snobbish and slightly out of touch.

What else did the Flotus do for fashion? Made it more approachable for one thing — less the joy-sapping preoccupation of neurotics and narcissists, and more of a self-affirming, enjoyable activity.

She demonstrated not only that you don’t have to be skin and bone to partake in high fashion, but also that it’s probably better if you’re not. She fast-tracked the careers of many designers, American and non-American, from Jason Wu and the Indian-American Naeem Khan to London designer Roksanda (various estimates put her monetary value to a brand at hundreds of millions of rands worth around £38 million of free advertising).

Like the Duchess of Cambridge, almost everything commercial she wears sells out: she’s a real, 50-year-old woman who doesn’t get paid for endorsements: the celebrity above all celebrities.

She also proved that it’s OK — preferable, actually — to hint at a playful side, even when you’re delivering serious speeches, because no one is one note.

More superficially, but usefully, she showed that patterns, separates, florals and prom skirts could all be appropriate work wear; that it’s okay to wear jeans and Converses at any age; changed expectations about power-dressing and gave us a new body zone (biceps) with which to engage and yes, obsess.

That’s already quite a lot. Then came that Versace evening dress at the White Hall dinner for Italian PM Matteo Renzi the other night. Draped, clingy, very, very (rose) gold, it did what Flotus outfits aren’t, by unspoken consensus, meant to do: make the Flotus look sexy. There was nothing obviously inappropriate about it. No cleavage, no slashes, no transparency. But that body!

It could turn out to be one of her most significant looks of the past eight years. By owning her sexuality (as well as her love of pretty stuff), this smart, mother of two highlighted just how artificial and outdated the construct between blue-stocking and light hearted has become. Hold the front page — women, like men, are multi-faceted.

Not that it will necessarily seem that way by January. Hillary’s style delivers straight down the line gravitas. Melania’s seems lodged in hoary old precepts of how a woman should always look compliantly “feminine”.

Let’s not get into the blame game at this stage, especially when Clinton for one, doesn’t have Michelle Obama’s obvious advantages — the height, the style confidence, nor the good fortune to be born 20 years later, and coming of age when fashion was no longer a feminist crime.

Equally, Mrs Obama hasn’t had to contend with the swathes of American voters — male and female — who appear profoundly misogynist and turn wickedly mean-girl when confronted with the prospect of a woman president. You could say Mrs O had it easy.

Or maybe she just made it look that way. – The Daily Telegraph

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