Barack Obama ran on a platform of change. During his inaugural address, he underscored that by looking to the future, eloquently and intrepidly: “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short.”
The same could be said for those of us who forgot first ladies could wear something other than a safe suit or an understated gown. Though Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama were relatively quiet during Tuesday’s inauguration, their clothing choices spoke volumes: A change will do you good.
And it wasn’t exactly a whisper. By any measure, Michelle Obama’s ensemble, in a shade designer Isabel Toledo calls lemongrass, was a bold choice. On millions of other women, it would’ve been a disaster. But she pulled it off beautifully.
Michelle Obama is known for the seamless way she blends couture with everyday labels — those moss-green gloves came from J. Crew, as did Malia’s and Sasha’s adorable outfits, and she’s no stranger to Gap. The shoes, however, were Jimmy Choos.
She is also known for her penchant for lesser-known American designers. Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera are legends for a reason, but it’s refreshing to see a new crop of names out there. According to The New York Times, Maria Pinto is one of Michelle Obama’s favorites — she designed the memorable purple sheath dress Obama wore at the Democratic National Convention. Jason Wu, a 26-year-old, Korean-born designer, created the confection of a gown she wore to the inaugural balls.
Every fashion analyst and his sister has made the obvious reference to Camelot. But that is way too easy — and far too simple. Michelle Obama is bigger, bolder and buffer than Jackie O. The woman is tall — and she clearly spends time at the gym. But these are all superficial differences. The more fundamental distinction is this: Michelle Obama is a career woman. A high-powered, high-salaried one, at that. She has an identity that is independent of her husband’s, and her clothing reflects that independence. She’s not afraid of wild colors, unexpected silhouettes and the occasional faux pas (say what you will about her red and black Narcisco Rodriguez election night dress). She owns her look.
But what does this mean for the rest of us? Those of us who can’t or won’t drop $900 on a sheath dress? Those of us for whom Gap and J. Crew are de rigueur? Those of us who are waiting for Narcisco Rodriguez to design a line for Target?
Love it or loathe it, Michelle Obama is about to change the way we dress. No, we’re not all going to be wearing tangerine chemises and lemongrass cardigans. Unfortunately, we won’t all get Jimmy Choos, either. But if you think Michelle Obama’s bold colors and daring pieces aren’t going to influence mainstream mall brands, think again.
Press releases touting lemongrass accessories are already streaming in. Expect to see cardigans everywhere this spring. Ditto for giant pearls, shiny green pumps and ball gown knockoffs. If we’re lucky, people will start wearing bright colors again — right now, it looks like we’re all mourning the death of the economy.
Michelle Obama also has the potential to shape fashion in a way that is more important — and timeless — than trends. Her choices send a loud, clear message to women everywhere: Be an individual. Seek out the unusual and the unknown. Define your own sense of style instead of bending yourself to someone else’s definition.
When it comes to change, it’s as though Michelle Obama looked to Andy Warhol for inspiration:
“They always say time changes things,” Warhol said, “but you actually have to change them yourself.”
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