I love Michelle Obama and I love clothes.
No "but" here, just a little yet. Something about this new book "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style"and all the attention on how she dresses makes little post-feminist alarm bells go off in my head.
After looking at all the ensembles and outfits and get-ups something just feels costumey about all of this, and a worry this complex, beautiful, smart, admirable, patriotic working mother and First Lady is getting objectified. Willingly so.
When I was working in my 20s it was very important that women fit in and looked professional -- which meant not feminine, not girly and plenty of shoulder pads and floppy ties. (I know). I've been happily re-educated in recent years that young women can dress the way they want to, including sexy, pretty and feminine, and not only get away with it but establish a new standard. A "this is how I dress, deal with it" bravado that I applaud.
It's not Michelle Obama's freedom of choices that bother me as much as the intensity of and focus on her wardrobe and the ever-changing frequency of new looks and hairstyles and all the time and effort we all know goes into that, along with the complexity of some of these ensembles that reminds me of a single and beautifully simple paper doll with just too many tabbed outfits.
So yes, I'm conflicted and decided to ask some friends and family for a reality check -- here's what they had to say:
-Costume is a good word. For women of power/intelligence, costume is something they have to consider when clothing themselves. Even those awful Wall Street outfits that women in finance usually don. Fashion is costume on some level. Being objectified comes with the territory for first ladies.
-In order to be taken seriously, we used to wear pant suits... or at least a tailored jacket and skirt - stockings and pumps. Michelle Obama shows us that a woman can be taken seriously as a strong woman -- not dressed like a man, but outfitted in elegant fashion, or in jeans, or barefooted and in shorts or whatever. (The fact that she's a Harvard MBA probably helps!) No more "wife wear"; Obama's clothes communicate her individuality -- that she is her own person and at the same time we know her to be a dedicated partner and mother. She's definitely comfortable in her clothes -- and in her own skin. The criticisms of her clothes are a reaction to this subtext of independence -- breaking out of the old mold and "violating" traditional expectations - that her choice in clothes convey.
-I think people are interested in how she dresses because she's African American and that's different, the same way it was with Jackie O, who was also different because of her youthfulness. Think about Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan and my personal fav, Barbara Bush... all so appropriate, so post-menopausal, so friggin' boring. A couple of years back, I went to a wonderful exhibit at the Kennedy Library which showcased Jackie's look. I doubt that type of show would happen for the other First Ladies, but I bet it will for Michelle
-I go to this wonderful female radiologist for my mammograms. One day I'm thumbing through a magazine and there's a full page ad for some designer showing women of all types modeling the fashions. My doctor was one of them. When I next saw her we talked about it and I asked why she did it. "To show my daughter that you can be a serious, substantial woman but also care about fashion." This woman diagnoses breast cancer everyday but has a strong enough sense of herself to know that caring about what she wears in no way diminishes who she is.
-Ask any First Lady and my guess is they don't want to be defined by what they wear -- I'm sure she'd rather be remembered as a champion for fighting childhood obesity and working for military families. But on the other hand, what woman wouldn't want to be known as a fashion icon?
-I think in some ways it makes Americans proud to see the first family looking regal at the appropriate function. Barbara bush had her fake pearls that she bragged about but she was never considered stylish. Michelle Obama is young and beautiful. She has shown off her great arms in some beautiful dresses. I think we all want to look up to her and admire what she is wearing. I think the problem is she has to walk a fine line between being sensible and not overspending but also looking stylish and elegant as a representative of our country.
-Back off! Michelle Obama is showing Americans how to dress affordably, eat healthy and exercise. What could possibly be wrong with that?
I don't stand corrected, just shushed. Which is fine with me- as I said, I love Michelle Obama and I love clothes. I just want more reasons to love.