When Michelle Obama wears clothes to important occasions, fingers shoot skyward to figure out which direction her stylistic choices have caused fashion’s wind to blow. Usually, the answer is heavily toward an everywoman brand like J. Crew, which made Michelle’s gloves, pumps, and belt. But yesterday she took advantage of the fierce independence that only a pair of lame ducks can enjoy in office, now that the gates of the reelection have opened her up to a bolder array of choices.
For Michelle, this first meant a new haircut. She debuted choppy bangs days before the inauguration. It was the kind of hair change people who don’t normally notice hair changes would notice, a modern cut recalling that of model Karlie Kloss, whose shaggy bob was the subject of an entire, multi-page article in a recent issue of Vogue. Then Michelle wore a coat and dress by Thom Browne for the daytime ceremony and parade. Previously, Browne was best known for his shrunken, ankle-exposing men’s suiting, and outrageous runway shows. Probably no one outside of the fashion industry would dare or want to wear much of Browne’s runway stuff, and even though Michelle opted for a safe look by him, it was a savvy choice of label. Her decision also has the potential to be a huge boon to Browne’s business, whose name recognition is nowhere near of that of Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren.
Clearly concerned with aesthetics as much as practicality, Michelle then changed from J. Crew pumps to custom knee-high boots by Reed Krakoff — the designer of the nearly $1,000 bird shirt Ann Romney was lambasted for wearing on TV — and added a glitzy J. Crew waist belt. Though her gloves were also J. Crew, altogether this was one very expensive, smashing, fashion-forward look that suggested no fear of displaying her interest in fashion, designer labels, and her own outward appearance. As much as the fashion industry has been invigorated by such a prominent political figure’s enthusiasm, critics have wondered if she can pull herself into a more issues-driven spectrum of interest in the Obama administration’s second term.
Yet you can’t fault Michelle’s interest in fashion any more than you can fault her husband’s interest in basketball. And even with her trendy new haircut and avant-garde labels, she still exhibited her measured approach to her image last night in her choice of a red gown by Jason Wu for the inaugural balls. The fashion industry was waiting for weeks to see which young designer she would blow up like she did Wu — a relative unknown until Michelle wore a white asymmetrical gown by him to the 2009 inaugural balls. But rather than cause the fuss she could have caused by choosing a different rising star designer, she created a slightly more muted fuss by wearing something relatively simple by a designer we already knew she loves. “I feel like with dressing for big occasions it’s really important to always think about the client,” Wu said on CNN Tuesday morning. “You [can’t] really think about everything else that comes with it.”
You get that sense observing Michelle too: She thinks about her own needs much more than what everyone else wants her to do. And that is the boldest statement she could make going into the next four years.