Few first ladies have caused as much breathless anticipation for their Inauguration Day wardrobes as Michelle Obama. But soon after she stepped onto the national stage as the candidate’s wife, Obama was elevated to a fashion star whose tastes ran from high-end designers to mass marketer H&M. She had the impressive height of a runway model, the figure of a real woman — a size 12 according to one fashion publicist — and took an admitted delight in looking “pretty.”
For the historic moment when she became this country’s first African American first lady, Obama chose a lemon-grass yellow, metallic sheath with a matching coat by the Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo. The dress followed her curves — paying special attention to the hips — and announced that the era of first lady-as-rectangle had ended. It signaled a generational shift in what women could be on the national stage. They could boldly embrace color and reveal their power, their femininity and their legs.
Recent first ladies seem to have tried — at least during the first term — to hold on to the idea of normalcy, no matter that they are living in the White House with staff, security and the albatross of history. At their husbands’ first inaugurations, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush wore uninspired clothes that seemed to make a case against the women’s being unique.
Obama’s mere presence on the Capitol steps yesterday was an anomaly — and her clothes celebrated that. Her coat and dress made her look exceptional — and vaguely regal — as she stood holding Lincoln’s cranberry-hued Bible in her gloved hand as her husband took the oath of office. Her daughters, Malia in a grape-colored coat and black tights and Sasha in pale pink and tangerine, were like her little ladies-in-waiting. President Obama, he was the somber one, in his dark overcoat with a tiny flag pin, his white shirt, red tie and his face tilted ever so slightly to the sky.
With Toledo, Michelle Obama reached into the loftiest corners of the fashion industry and chose a small design house where the person whose name is on the label is the same person hunched over the sketchpads, following production and fretting about whether she will be able to get her merchandise to market on time. Obama avoided the expected names, the well-funded houses and the corporate designers. Toledo does not advertise. Her wares are sold in only a handful of stores, from Barneys New York to Chicago’s Ikram, the North Rush Street shop where Obama has been a regular customer.
She wore the ensemble with olive leather gloves and Jimmy Choo pumps that were a deeper, forest shade of green, refraining from going dreadfully matchy-matchy. The entire picture spoke of womanliness, grandeur and elegance, and it declared Obama’s ease with being a woman of modest background thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Shy and retiring personalities do not wear glittering citron under the noon sun.