Our Continuing Obsession With What Michelle Obama Wears

In the wake of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US, something of a controversy has arisen:

Why did First Lady Michelle Obama not wear a dress by an American designer at the state dinner on January 19th?

The New York Times has run two pieces about the red dress by the British design label Alexander McQueen that the First Lady wore. The On the Runway blog suggests that Women’s Wear Daily’s has been conducting the equivalent of a ‘witch hunt’ and is, along with Oscar de la Renta and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (C.F.D.A.), ‘trying to shame Mrs. Obama for her sin of wearing fashion by a non-American designer to the state dinner for China on Jan. 19.’  However, as the NYT points out, ‘many of [the C.F.D.A.]‘s members, including its president, Diane Von Furstenberg, manufacture a significant portion of their clothes outside the United States, mainly in Asia.’ 

In an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times, Kate Betts writes that the First Lady did choose to wear a dress by American designer Rachel Roy for the State of the Union address. Betts suggests that Mrs. Obama’s ‘impact on fashion’ goes beyond just wearing clothes ‘Made in America’:

…The optimism, glamour and accessibility that she communicates through her style of dressing transcends cultural borders and economic boundaries. Yes, she is sometimes an ambassador for American designers, but more important, she is an ambassador for the self-possession that defines American style.

Maybe she chose not to promote a specific American brand at the state dinner last week, but she certainly promotes a healthy sense of enjoyment and individuality in fashion. With her brio and idiosyncratic clothing choices, Mrs. Obama has rewritten the dress code for women who work. We wear cardigans now instead of always jackets, flats instead of impossibly high platform heels. We have a little fun with fashion, even to the point of being more frivolous.

And, most important, we dress for ourselves, something the first lady does so effortlessly it’s hard to imagine that there had ever been any dress code for her position. With her floral prints and hula hoops, she’s not afraid to flaunt her femininity — so why should the rest of us be?

Mrs. Obama, Betts writes, dresses for herself, rather than for others; rather than to please the tastes and demands of others. It’s an appealing point: How many times have we all put on some outfit because we thought it was ‘what we should look like,’ only to regret those stupid blister-causing heels when we had to walk several blocks and wish we had worn our favorite, comfy pair of shoes?  I thought it commendable that the First Lady has been regularly choosing to wear not some fancy-schmancy Euro designer label with fancy-schmancy prices to match, but, of all things, J. Crew.

And on the other hand I’m having mixed feelings about even writing this post. I mean, why do we continue to care so much—too much—about what the First Lady is wearing?  As Cathy Horyn writes in On the Runway:

Here’s my problem with Mrs. Obama: I want her to be known for something other than her fashion. I want her to be a great first lady who truly cares about the lives of Americans at the time when many need help. I want her to be far more than “prime placement” for a dress label — whatever the country of origin. She supports a number of causes, notably healthful eating habits, but these deeds are being overshadowed by what she wears. Only she can change that perception. In March 2009, The Economist ran an excellent article about our new first lady that expressed the concern that she might become better known for her fashion rather than for her opinions. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening.


Is it possible for anyone in the First Lady role to be known more for ‘her deeds’ and less for what she wears? If a woman were elected President of the US, would the same over-concern about her clothes exist?

Or maybe the fashionistas’ focus will swing to said first female President’s husband. Just to be fair, you know. 


Photo by Rusty Darbonne.


Rose N.
Past Member 6 years ago

Thank you for posting.

Jane R.
Jane R6 years ago

The way she dresses is a disgrace to our country. She nor her advisor has any sense of how someone in her position should dress. She lacks elegance. Mr. Obama lacks what it takes for people to believe in him, trust in him & LIKE him. They both will destroy America. Doubt me? Just wait and see. He has already put us in more debt than any other President. Once he is out, our taxes will go up higher than ever before. There has to be some way to undo what he did to our Country. That only way is by very high taxes. If you voted for him, you get what you deserve. But the rest of us who knew better and didn't vote for him will suffer too. Tahnk you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman6 years ago

noted :)

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal6 years ago

I've heard "Clothes make the man." Is this a demonstration of the cliche?

Gina P.
Regina P6 years ago

She looks great in the red dress, but I wish people would realize that Michelle Obama is way way more than her clothing!

Tavis Harrison
Tavis Harrison6 years ago

Jan N,

Sorry for not responding earlier, but I was busy with stuff that's really none of your business. Now to respond to your post:

"And Tavis, nice comment. If you’re 16, why are you home during the day? Mommy homeschooling you by letting you play on the computer? Why are you on Care2 in the evening, not allowed to have friends or is no one your alleged age interested in spending time with you? Are you a 16-year old loser or an adult who thinks he’s being clever by claiming to be 16? Just wondering."

First off, the time zones from where I live in Florida and the time zone for this website(probably California) is a difference of about 3 hours. So if I post at 1:40 or so according to the website time, it's 4:40 here in my time zone. Aside from that, yes I am home-schooled/online virtual school. It's FLVS.net if you want to know more, look it up. I don't think it's really any of you business how many friends I have but my guess is more than you do. I am, in fact, 16. I was born on Dec. 2, 1994. Not that I really care if you believe me or not. So I'm a loser because I post on a liberal blog website? Well then, I guess that makes you, and everyone else who posts on this God forsaken website a loser too. Congradulations everyone!

John E.
John E6 years ago

* Laura Mancuso says
* Jan 31, 2011 10:15 PM
Nice Article etc
I agree with every word that Laura wrote ... Michelle Obama is a gracious First Lady and does America proud.
Isn't that enough?

Elaine Morris
Elaine Morris6 years ago

Personally? She looks like she just walked out of a 3rd rate thrift shop in the worst part of D.C.

Elaine Morris
Elaine Morris6 years ago

Who cares? Because she is the First Lady who has 21 "Handmaidens" working for her to the tune of OVER
$1 Million Dollars. She IS THE FIRST LADY. She does have an image to uphold of how OUR First Lady should look. It is unfortunate, but human beings do judge those who are in the limelight on how they appear in public.

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS6 years ago

When people have a contemporary role model (someone living now as opposed to a historical figure), they tend to want to emulate that role model in all ways, including their style. Personally, I find MIchelle Obama's elegant, restrained, comfortable style to be a wonderfully classic, commonsense style that deserves to be emulated far more than the extreme dress of Hollywood celebs and the hoity-toity jet set.