When Jackie Kennedy, accompanied by President Kennedy, arrived in Paris in May, 1961 on an official presidential trip, she was greeted by cheering crowds chanting "Vive Jackie!" The French admired her youth, beauty, grace and charm. But what made them fall in love with her was that she seemed so, well, French.
An unrepentant Francophile, Jackie had a degree in French literature, spoke fluent French and preferred the French pronunciation of her name: Jachleen. She arrived in Paris in a navy shantung suit by Chez Ninon, a chichi Park Avenue dressmaker that supplied her with copies of French couture, which she wore throughout the trip - except, that is, when she was wearing real Givenchy.
Now, almost half a century later, another American First Lady has swept triumphantly into France, this time swathed in black and fuchsia silk by the young, Thailand-born U.S. designer Thakoon Panichgul. The crowds have been as enthusiastic for Michelle Obama as they were for Jackie Kennedy, and the press as fawning. An article that ran on the web site for the Parisian newspaper L'Express was typical: Headlined, "The Ten Commandments of Michelle Obama's Style," it celebrated the First Lady's love of bright colors, pointed shoes, and bold accessories. All the clothes she's worn so far on the trip (with the exception of some Azzedine Alaia and an argyle sweater by the Japanese Junya Watanabe) are by American designers, including Michelle's favorite multi-culti design posse of the Cuban born Isabel Toldeo, the Taiwanese born Jason Wu, and Thakoon.
Could it be the French are ceding ground they've passionately clung to for more than 300 years? Are they admitting that when it comes to style, their authority is no longer absolute?
The fact that Michelle arguably outshone Carla Bruni, the wife of French President Nicholas Sarkozy and a former fashion mannequin at the first ladies' much anticipated first meeting -- on French soil no less -- is testament to Obama star power. At ceremonies at Strasbourg's Rohan palace during the second leg of the G20 Summit, Carla and Michelle both wore coats with bows, an uncanny coincidence suggesting they were channeling the same fashion fairy. Otherwise, they looked completely different. Carla's demure gray lambskin seemed downright boring next to Michelle's vibrant black silk dotted with fuchsia flowers. But it wasn't until the coats came off that Michelle's elegance really gleamed. Her slim fitting, three quarter sleeve fuchsia dress looked exactly right. It combined Asian elements with a whimsical femininity and completely washed out Carla's subdued gray sheath.
One gets the sense that Carla is dressing not to please herself but to conform to an idea of who she should be. Sarkozy has been quoted saying he hoped his wife would be the new Diana. There's not much chance of that, for no matter how often Carla is photographed in understated, traditional French clothes, the Italian born heiress can't obliterate her racy past of liaisons with rock stars (including the married Mick Jagger), and the nude photos of her on the internet.
Not only do Michelle's clothes project an authentic self -- confident, healthy, smart, uncynical -- they also reflect the spirit of the moment. There is something new in the air, a kind of youthful openness. Barack Obama harnessed it and rode it to the White House. And you can see it on the street, in the way young women wear their flirty skirts with bare legs and colorful handbags, the way they pair tank tops with fringed scarves and tuck their jeans into sleek boots.
Seismic social and economic shifts, like the ones we are experiencing now, often lead to fashion revolutions. After World War I, women shed their corsets and cut their hair, liberating themselves from restraining fashion, just as they freed themselves from Victorian ideas of women's subservience. Twenty-five years later, sick of the drab, skimpy clothes they'd worn throughout WWII, women turned the clock back to the Belle Epoque and embraced the opulent femininity of Christian Dior's New Look.
Today, in the wake of the Wall Street implosion there's a new kind of glamour, one that is relaxed, fun and accessible to all, and it's embodied by Michelle Obama. Even the First Lady's occasional style missteps don't disqualify her as a Fashion Star. Old Guard arbiters of chic like Oscar de la Renta might excoriate her for wearing a humble sweater to Buckingham Palace. And the London Daily Mail might tease her for letting the line of her body slimming underwear, what the Brit's call "magic pants," show through the fabric of her J.Crew skirt. But the truth is, the old rules no longer apply, and the snarky comments don't stick.