Fashion advice for Michelle Obama.

Fashion advice for Michelle Obama.

Fashion advice for Michelle Obama.

The language of style.
Nov. 13 2008 5:51 PM

Fashion Advice for Michelle Obama

Hint: Don't dress like Jackie Kennedy.

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Like Kennedy, you clearly understand the power of clothes to telegraph messages. In the midst of Sarah Palin's Wardrobegate, you wore wore inexpensive J. Crew separates  on The Tonight Show, telling Jay Leno, "You can get a lot of great stuff online. ("All Politics Aside … this outfit gets our vote" reads a current J. Crew ad, an effort to cash in on your endorsement.) Another savvy choice: You wore evening pajamas by Isabel Toledo  for a fundraiser hosted by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour in New York last June. Toledo is an insider's designer; all black was a smart choice for meeting fashion deities (and the pope.) 

Like Jackie Kennedy, you understand that dressing for your audience is important. But that's where the comparison ends. Where Kennedy's wardrobe was constant, a calculated piece of stagecraft, your style is more casual and more spontaneous. Which makes it much more interesting.

Jackie's White House wardrobe was essentially custom work from one designer, Oleg Cassini; you buy off the rack. Jackie bought clothes and returned them after wearing them. What you wear, you own. Jackie often spent tens of thousands of dollars in one shot; no one could accuse you of lavish spending.

It seems, happily, that we are more obsessed with your wardrobe than you are. Surely you are less fixated than the proprietors of MrsO, an obsessive new blog devoted to your sartorial choices. But I'd like to leave you with a few specific thoughts. (Like you, I'm sure, I hate it when people bring me a problem without bringing me a resolution.)

1.Live your life, but remember you are being photographed. I don't mean that you should leave the tracksuit at home when you take the girls for the occasional Big Mac. You're a mom, and we love it. But I do think you could be more attentive to what is photogenic for big occasions when you are not on private time. The easiest thing to do is have someone take a digital picture of you, see how your look photographs. Try a profile shot as well—cameras obviously are not always face-on, and unwanted bumps and lumps will be revealed this way. And think about the background: The Hell Dress on that blue stage was harsh.

2. Stop shopping for day clothes right now. Repeat outfits. Wear your favorites often, and change the accessories. That's a tried-and-true rule for great style during hard times. Women across the country will appreciate it.

3.Spend, sometimes. You are allowed to indulge, especially for state dinners, meeting Queen Elizabeth and Mme. Sarkozy. We want you to look awesome. And spending is good for the economy.

4.Stick with Maria Pinto, your long-time dressmaker in Chicago. (The aqua dress she designed for your speech at the convention and the vivid coral number you wore to your recent White House visit were terrific.) She's a win-win. You can show hometown pride, support a small business, remain loyal, and she makes you look better than anyone.

5.A note on accessories. Please don't wear gumball pearls like Barbara Bush. In fact, please don't wear pearls at all. We voted for change, and we love your outsize jewelry. So far you've avoided the tired Washington classics—the pearls, the miniflags, the bald eagles, the diamond billboards for your home state. Love it. The big glittery brooches are so distinctive. Love them.

6.Beware of inaugural ball up-dos. Nancy Reagan's chignon at the 1981 inaugural looked imperious. (The fact that she was wearing a $10,000 gown didn't help.) Hillary Clinton, I hate to say, looked like a Grand Ole Opry star with curls piled high at 1993's inaugural. But you looked fabulous on the cover of Monday's New York Post, with your hair pulled back for a night out on the town with the future president. If that's preview of Jan. 20, I say do it. Just don't do it again for a while.

7.Keep wearing American designers, and wear more of them. Oscar de la Renta has been the favored designer of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, and there's no reason to resist his beautiful clothes on occasion.

But Donna Karan is perfect for your strength and curves. Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren make the classic sweaters and skirts you love. Isaac Mizrahi makes a beautiful gown. Diane von Fürstenberg and Tory Burch favor the easy shapes and bold prints you love. Remember, these designers collectively employ hundreds of American workers, and the American fashion industry could use your support right now.

8.Inauguration Day. Wear Maria Pinto to the swearing-in ceremony and Thakoon to the inaugural balls.

This is no time for risk-taking. Pinto has been dressing you the longest and deserves the honor. I'd say she's guaranteed to make you look your best. And if you're going to wear a hat, call Albertus Swanepoel, New York's last great milliner. Only he could pull it off.

I think you would be incredible in a Donna Karan draped gown and coat for evening. But Thakoon Panichgul is the ideal choice to design your inaugural gown. The 33-year-old Thai-born, Omaha-raised, New York-based designer represents the very best of American opportunity and hard work, and he will capture the romance and the majesty of that incredible night for the rest of us to remember.

Josh Patner has written about fashion for Slate, the New York TimesBritish Vogue, Glamour, Elle, and Harper's Bazaar.