Michelle Obama’s Style: Girlie Clothes That ‘Lean In’

Mrs Obama visits a Japan-US Joint Girls Education Event at the Iikura guest house in Tokyo (EPA)
Mrs Obama visits a Japan-US Joint Girls Education Event at the Iikura guest house in Tokyo (EPA)

I admit: I was startled last week when I saw the first photos of Michelle Obama debarking in Japan at the beginning of her five-day Asian tour to promote the “Let Girls Learn” education campaign.

Not because I don’t think it’s a terrific initiative; I do. I have two daughters, and think the more that can be done to make girls feel empowered by their academic experiences, the better.

And not because I don’t think the first lady should be emphasizing the partnership with Japan and Cambodia. The visits are laudable.

But because of her dress: a citrine-colored, small-waisted, full-skirted print Kenzo. The dress, on first glance, telegraphed a very 1950s femininity. It seemed like such a nonpower choice in which to deliver a message about empowerment that it took me aback — even on vacation, surfing the news in a desultory fashion.

Especially because the Kenzo dress was followed by a bright orange-red Altuzarra blazer and skirt, bedecked in blooms; which was followed by a stylized leaf print Dries Van Noten coat over a striped T-shirt and black pants; which was followed by a carnation-print Carolina Herrera frock; which was followed by an even brighter geometric Alice & Olivia shell and matching skirt; which was followed by a v-neck, silky, swirling-skirted, color block Roksanda Ilincic dress — the last image of Mrs O. before she boarded her plane home.

However much you may want to dismiss sartorial stereotype, it’s inarguable that such styles spark an almost Pavlovian response in the lizard brain: They bring to mind the decades when gender roles were codified and distinct, when women’s sphere was the home, and their game plan didn’t necessarily include higher education.

As a woman, and one who spends a lot of time thinking about the messages women’s clothes send about their identity, I found the apparent clothes/context disjunction to be jarring. Even for a first lady who is known for her affection for a print and a dress, even in countries where color and nature are celebrated.

Shouldn’t she have worn a sharp-shouldered suit to talk about achievement? What about a red sheath dress, as often favored by Sheryl (“Lean In”) Sandberg? As long as we are embracing fashion clichés, wouldn’t those be more appropriate?

Which was when I began to wonder if there wasn’t, perhaps, something else going on. And I don’t mean the “she wears what she wants” piffle.

After all, given that pretty much every image disseminated during the five days of the Asia visit was captioned “Mrs. Obama on her ‘Let Girls Learn’ trip” (or some variation thereon), the association between what the first lady was wearing and what she was there to discuss was unavoidable. Especially because she was the first sitting first lady to visit Cambodia; especially because there was no other through line; no other linking factor between the garments.

They were not all by female designers, for example, as may have been expected on a trip conceived to promote female achievement and the places sticking with school can get you.

They were not all by American designers, as has been traditional for American first ladies before Mrs. Obama, who saw their role as promoting local industry.

And they were not by Asian designers, an occasional form of sartorial diplomacy employed by traveling politicians trying to make nice with the countries they visit. Nor were they all already seen, shopped-her-closet numbers. What they were (full skirts, belts, neat tops and all) was mostly — well, girlie.

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times – Vanessa Friedman

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