Sometimes a dress is just a dress (albeit, a cute one), and sometimes a dress is worn by Michelle Obama and is much more than a mere garment, it is an integral piece of American history. Ever since the Obamas took up residence at the White House, the nation has been quick to chronicle and critique her clothing choices, triggering unwarranted debates on everything from price tags to supposed symbolic value. We are a nation obsessed, and with good reason: we have a first lady we can relate to and her clothes serve as a constant reminder of her accessibility.
Our fixation with Michelle's style transcends purely superficial "who wore it best" conversations and frivolous banter, it celebrates female power. We admire our first lady's signature style because she takes risks. Michelle has stepped out in shorts, bared her arms, worked out on late-night television shows and we relate to those informal moments. She wears pieces straight from the runways and J.Crew catalogues alike with a certain casualness; mixing in Target pieces and re-wearing pricey frocks proving she's just a regular mom-in-chief. Aware of the influence of her clothing choices, she doesn't favor one label, rather she selects traditional pieces from classic fashion houses (Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta) in addition to cutting-edge contemporary designers whose names we can not pronounce (Prabal Gurung and Naeem Khan), all the while looking fresh, confident and always appropriate. Her fashion is functional -- there's nothing stuffy or costumey about her choices. Michelle knows what you wear says a lot about who you are, and her wardrobe conveys a message about being a woman of substance and style.
To quote Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games, "hope... is the only thing stronger than fear..." I am familiar with hope. My parents raised me to be an independent, ambitious, confident woman. From a very young age I was repeatedly told "I could do anything," in addition to being reminded regularly that I was smart, beautiful and loved. Seeing as I went through one hell of an awkward stage, and had overachieving Ivy League-bound siblings, the smart and beautiful parts did not resonate with me (didn't parents have to say that to their kids?) as much as the promise that I could create my own destiny. Armed with hope and a solid work ethic, I was determined to forge my own path in life: choosing a Southern University over the New England schools my friends attended, a career in fashion armed with only a liberal arts degree and a life in DC with no local friends, family, job connections or even an interest in politics. But at each junction in life a little voice from within encouraged me to follow my dreams, and upon each success asked me, "what now, what's next?" That voice kept me moving forward and challenging the status quo. Michelle, who dared to wear a bold red Alexander McQueen dress to a state dinner and took a public stance on political initiatives like healthy eating, continues to inspire me to take chances.
I remember exactly where I was when Michelle Obama stood beside Barack on election night and again on Inauguration Day in 2009; I was 25 and working for a prominent stylist, looking back I can say that was the most thin, tired and broke I've ever been. It was also one of the most exciting times in my life -- working long hours learning my craft firsthand from a true expert in the field who demanded perfection from herself and her staff, and making the most of the few precious hours in between exploring my new city. While extremely overworked and underpaid, I had the sense that this was the beginning of something bigger, both personally and professionally. DC was growing and changing, and so was I. Michelle Obama embodied her husband's campaign message of hope and change by leaving behind the pastel pantsuits and quiet smiles of the generations before her, thus shattering the conventional image of a first lady.
So will we be talking about Michelle Obama's outfit? Of course, but her clothes and the dialogues they promote will occur amongst people who no longer feel estranged from the first lady. Somewhere in America there are little girls dreaming about being the first lady or the first female president, and Michelle's clothes give them hope... hope that they too can defy society's expectations and stereotypes.