Fashion Advice for Michelle Obama
Hint: Don't dress like Jackie Kennedy.
Dear Mrs. Obama,
Congratulations to you and your husband on a thrilling victory. It must be unnerving to find, a week after such a historic event, that all anyone wants to talk about is your wardrobe.
Forgive us. We pro-fashion pundits can't help but chime in on the importance of clothes. Especially now that we've been treated to this absurdly style-happy election. We've spent the past 20 months talking about Clinton's décolletage, McCain's loafers, his wife's earrings, Obama's sunglasses, and, of course, Sarah Palin's pricey makeover. We just can't stop.
But we also want to talk about your wardrobe because we think you have great style. We are attracted to it and inspired by it, and—with all respect due the future first lady—I thought I'd offer a few humble thoughts on what makes your style so great and what you might keep in mind as you get dressed for the next four to eight years.
I don't take the opportunity lightly, given that you are already perched on Vanity Fair's"Best Dressed" list and rumored to be on an upcoming cover of Vogue. But what you wear is important, especially when the nation, and the world, is watching you. We'll be looking to you for optimism and for guidance. And we want you to represent.
You clearly love clothes—no woman who wears prints and color doesn't. And it seems you are one of the lucky women who likes her body—you show your curves with confidence and pride. Where most wives of politicians reach for the cheerful, standard issue skirt-suit (think Jill Biden's citrus number on Election Night), you have more imagination.
I'm thinking here of the abstracted rose-print silk dress you wore the evening your husband accepted the nomination. Few other women in a similar position would have made such a daring choice. The print was big, the colors were regal without being dour, the cut was utterly flattering—and utterly unbusinesslike. The dress said: I'm no cookie-cutter lady. The aqua short-sleeved jacket you wore over gray stripes on the campaign trail wasn't particularly "first lady like," but it was charming. And the exotic purple feather pin on Larry King showed a feminine theatricality that was just plain fun.
The choices you've made thus far demonstrate traits that will be useful in a first lady: practicality, flexibility, a sense of humor, a sense of glamour. Yours is a particularly American style—relaxed, confident, classic, and not overly label-happy. You've embraced American designers, from populist low-cost outfitters like White House/Black Market (the awkwardly named makers of the now famous $148 dress you wore on The View) to big-gun American designers like Narciso Rodriguez (who made the cranberry wool shift you wore at the debate in Nashville) and new stars like Thakoon Panichgul (who made the print dress you had on in Denver).
You've also embraced the casual chic of some classically American looks. I love the way you wear your belt over a fitted sweater, like Mary Tyler Moore. I love that you wear flat shoes with a full skirt: so Maria from West Side Story.
I even love that you make the occasional mistake. It shows that you are open-minded, even risk-taking. But the white floral-print J. Crew dress you wore to the University of Mississippi debate was too much. White is rarely good on camera and, you'll excuse me, never good from the rear view.
And I must ask because everyone wants to know: What about that Narciso Rodriguez dress in Grant Park? Wonkette called it "hell-colored." Sixty-five percent of those polled by People.com said they hated the dress. Tight satin? Beading? The obi waist? The weird little cardigan? Mrs. Obama, black with red is too jarring a color combination for a first lady. It's too dramatic. It recalls an eerie portrait by Goya or a costume from Tosca or Carmen. All too fiery when we want you to soothe. Especially in an image that will be beamed around the world and live online forever.
By now, I imagine you must find the comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy flattering but tiring. At 44, you will be the youngest first lady since Camelot; the comparisons are inevitable. That doesn't make them accurate.
Josh Patner has written about fashion for Slate, the New York Times, British Vogue, Glamour, Elle, and Harper's Bazaar.