The first time I heard Michelle Obama speak was on the campaign trail, when her hubby took the day off to visit his ailing grandmother. I remember thinking, This woman’s going to be the most badass First Lady EVER. What I don’t remember is what she was wearing. And that’s exactly the point.
That Michelle Obama knows how to dress is fairly obvious; it’s all the media can talk about. For a First Lady aspiring to be America’s Favorite Wife, Hostess and Mommy, being heralded as The New Jackie O. is the holy grail of compliments – sartorial and otherwise.
But for a First Lady who’s already as much of a world-changer as her husband, the comparison is an attempt to box her into her faaahbulous clothes; a veiled suggestion that perhaps she’d be more comfortable at home choosing flatware for the next state dinner than at the podium pitching a $50 million national service initiative.
The idea that an attractive woman with an innate sense of style is more than the sum of her suit/bag/shoes combo – that she is a free-thinking individual seeking to better the world (one outside of her White House realm) by living and actively participating in it – still makes us just a teensy bit uncomfortable. In an article on Michelle Obama’s Ambitious Agenda, Politico referenced these words of wisdom from some PR chick (Oxymoron Alert):
I think (her agenda is) fragmented. She stands for so many things right now, she’s doing so many things. She’s in the kitchen at the White House, she’s building houses, she’s digging in the garden. It’s all very nice, but I thought to myself, “Why is she planting herbs?” said Mindy Sabella, director of marketing at Siegel+Gale.
Let’s review this choice quotation again, and ask ourselves the following question: Why is Michelle’s standing for so many things and doing so many things framed in such a negative context?
Because Mindy, along with most of the media, is too pea-brained to see something that can’t be packaged, stamped and sold as something good. If we’re to appreciate Michelle, we must mold her into something with which we’re already acquainted first. Viewing her in the context of Fashion alone supposedly simplifies and humanizes her. As such, it lets us do really fun things like tear her down for wearing $500 Lanvin sneakers to volunteer at a D.C. food bank.
Because I’m easily riled by all things heinously expensive, one would think I’d balk at Mrs. O’s casual shoe choice. One would be wrong. I highly doubt anyone at the food bank that day knew or cared about what those sneakers cost (outside of the press core, obvs), and I highly doubt Michelle obsessed over what the media response to said sneakers might be when she got dressed that morning. The woman doesn’t have time to think about that crap, nor should she. Of course she’s got pricey shoes – she’s the First Lady, for fuck’s sake.
Discussing her French footwear instead of her commitment to national service is our faux pas. Not hers.
(Those still bothered by her Lanvin sneaks should note the following: Mrs. O’s already worn that knockout Tracy Feith dress on two separate occasions, and the woman lives in J.Crew argyle cardigans. Those sweaters are to her what American Apparel leggings are to me. RESPECT.)
Last night, Michelle spoke at the TIME 100 Gala to an audience of co-honorees, among them Suze Orman (heck yeah), Lorne Michaels (mmkay), and a Liv Tyler/Stella McCartney/Kate Hudson trifecta (Most Influential People my ass). She didn’t discuss who she was wearing or gush about being, like, sooo flattered to be in the company of, like, sooo many famous peeps. She did what she does best: She got down to biznass.
Her remarks included the following:
There are few things more rewarding than watching young people recognize that they have the power to enrich not only their lives, but the lives of others as well. But careers in public service are not always encouraged. We push our young people to strive for things, an advanced degree, a job title, a big salary. Rarely do we urge them to stop and think about what their passion is, what kind of life they want to live, what kind of neighbors and colleagues and parents they want to be.
I like to imagine Michelle as finishing the above thought by saying to herself, (and very, very quietly): “Those of you paying $500 an hour for SAT tutors, take note: Even an Ivy League education can’t teach the child you’ve spoiled rotten how to be a decent person. But public service can!” I mean, I don’t know her personally or anything. But we’re both huge fans of Sesame Street and I do a killer Grover impression. So there’s hope. ;)
It’s lucky for us that Michelle Obama isn’t a woman easily swayed by the opinions of others – I don’t see her fading into the background clad in designer garb anytime soon. She’s fashionable, yes, but she’s a hell of a lot more too. And she’ll continue being the kind of woman who’s so much more than political arm candy – the kind of woman who visits elementary schools and puts lift under every chair in the room – long after we tire of dissecting the outfits she wears in the process. That’s what matters. That’s what makes her a role model not just for African-American women, but for all women.
Fashion can be fun, but it’s not all we are. Where this First Lady’s concerned, it’s merely the tip of a whole iceberg of awesomeness.
Remember Gatorade’s I-Wanna-Be-Like Ad? Us gals finally have a Jordan to call our own. Let’s not take her for granted.