How Michelle Obama's Fashion Matters Now

The Atlantic

If Michelle Obama looked business-like during the inauguration ceremonies Monday in her tailored, menswear-inspired Thom Browne outfit, or elegant during the balls last night in her red Jason Wu gown, this morning she looked downright subdued. The First Lady stepped in front of the cameras once again, for the the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service. This time, she wore an ivory Naeem Khan coat and dress, Women's Wear Daily reported on Twitter, accented with a geometric pattern. Her hair was pulled back — even if Those Bangs still dripped over her eyes, even as the nation continued, four years later, to follow every drip of First Lady fashion news in obsessive, copycat style. 

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Before the return of inauguration and its many meaningless story lines — yawning, eye-rolling, "photo-bombing," and beyond — last week Kat Stoeffel at New York's The Cut wrote an essay under the headline: "Do People Still Care About What Michelle Obama Wears?" In the piece Stoeffel cited arguments that Obama's style has been consistently inconsistent, therefore giving her the opportunity to direct attention elsewhere. This term perhaps could also mean a larger political role for the First Lady.

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But if the ongoing inauguration festivities are any indication — the First Lady will attend the Staff Inaugural Ball tonight, and might still outshine Lady Gaga — the media still loves to talk about what Michelle Obama wears, and we the people love to soak it up and even buy it. And while, yes, her very public outfit choices may signal a different role for this term, they still matter. 

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Robin Givhan at the Washington Post wrote that "In four years, her style had shifted from fizzy hope to glimmering grown-up pragmatism." As for her Thom Browne ensemble, Christina Brinkley at the Wall Street Journal pointed out "Fashion editor Kate Betts speculated that the outfit signaled Mrs. Obama—a former executive—was ready to take a stronger, broader role at the White House." Though discussing fashion might seem frivolous in the world of politics, Michelle Obama's choices make symbolic statements as well. 

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As indicated by reports of Obama's accessories selling out, it's also clear that the First Lady can still "move markets," as New York University's David Yermack explained in 2010 in the Harvard Business Review. (J. Crew's creative director Jenna Lyons told the Today show that the company would be retiring Michelle's belt and the color of the coat Malia wore.)

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Yahoo! tells The Atlantic Wire that searches for the first lady's dress, coat, and belt spiked on that search engine. Over at Google Trends, the volume of searches for "michelle obama fashion" aren't as high in the U.S. as they were in 2009, but that's not surprising given the circumstances. This is the second term after all. 

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The comfort of a second inauguration was perhaps reflective of the First Lady's solid position atop the throne of all-American fashion influence. Indeed, her red dress last night was only shocking because it wasn't really shocking at all. Eric Wilson of the New York Times wrote that the First Lady put on "a spectacular fashion show" but that the moment that "surprised everyone" was when she wore a Jason Wu dress for the balls, echoing the move that catapulted the now-30-year-old Wu to fashion fame four years ago. As Kurt Soller noted at The Cut, it was a move that seemed to say "Stop guessing. I’m not here to shock. I’m just wearing what I like." And that sums up a lot of the chatter over Michelle Obama's changing influence: American still cares about what the First Lady is wearing, but only insofar as what it means about what she's doing while she's wearing it.

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