US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama dance together at the Commander-in-Chief’s Inaugural Ball in Washington, at the Washington Convention Center during the 57th Presidential Inauguration on January 21. Never afraid of bright colours, Michelle Obama here is wearing a red gown designed by Jason Wu, who dressed her for the 2009 inauguration as well.

By Booth Moore

In the past four years, no woman has been a more powerful fashion force than US First Lady Michelle Obama.
Even after so much time on the public stage, her wardrobe choices still spark trends, drive sales and generate discussion and dissection on blogs and morning TV shows. On her 49th birthday last week, the fact that she was sporting a new hairstyle with bangs heated up the Twitterverse.
The components of the first lady’s personal style (pearls, cardigans, kitten heels) are instantly recognisable. Her endorsement of young designers such as Jason Wu, Rodarte, Band of Outsiders, Tracy Reese and Prabal Gurung has helped raise a new generation of American fashion talent. And she has given American women (including those over age 40) permission to dress to impress, to experiment with wearing colour and print, to have fun with fashion.
But if the cliché about a second presidential administration is true — that it is an opportunity to tackle a new agenda without having to worry about re-election — what will the first lady’s second “fashion administration” look like, beginning with the second inauguration attire?
“Do I think now that she’s in a second term she will go Goth, get tattoos or suddenly start wearing all European designers? No,” says Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour magazine, which featured the first lady on the cover in December 2009.
“She’s stayed true to her personality in the White House, which is one of the reasons women look up to her,” Leive says. “The shapes she wears are consistent, the fitted bodices, fuller skirts and sleeveless tops. Her affinity for colour and print has remained consistent. The Michelle Obama you see in 2013 acts and looks a lot like what she looked like on the campaign trail.”
Mikki Taylor, author of the 2011 book Commander-in-Chic: Every Woman’s Guide to Managing Her Wardrobe Like a First Lady, and editor at large at Essence magazine, agrees.
“From a practical perspective, she has taught us the importance of defining your dress code, the importance of developing a signature style that works for you,” Taylor says. “She put J Crew on the map. She made cardigans, which she owns in a rainbow of hues, youthful. She made sheath dresses fresh and revived the kitten heel. She’s her own role model, and doesn’t care to be anybody else’s style plate. It’s all about unexpected pairings. She dresses to ‘infotain’ herself and likes to mix classics with a twist, like at the Democratic National Convention when she threw on the pink suede shoes and grey nail polish. She loves throwing an unexpected curve in there.”
But other fashion observers have noticed some subtle changes.
“She’s started to streamline her style a lot, which may signal a move away from the whole fashion thing and a move toward trying to emphasise her causes,” says Kate Betts, author of the 2011 book Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.
“She’s wearing fewer accessories, including belts and bold jewellery, fewer floral prints. She’s wearing suits more,” Betts says. “She’s dressing less like a 1950s housewife, which was a very strategic image she wanted to put out there early on to say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, I’m not going to the West Wing and rolling up my sleeves to get to work.’ For all the people who thought she would be the sequel to Hillary Clinton in terms of her serious education and professional credentials, Michelle Obama actually went in the other direction, embracing a more traditional role and look.”
In recent months, Obama has emphasised affordable labels over designer pieces, Betts says.
On the campaign trail last autumn, for example, she wore dresses by Jones New York and BCBG Max Azria, each of which retailed for less than $300 and all of which were documented on the blog, which has registered more than 2.5mn visits each year since starting to chronicle the first lady’s style in 2009.
Obama has also been re-wearing a lot of pieces, most notably on election night when she chose a magenta silk pintucked dress by Michael Kors that she had worn back in 2010.
The gold Lurex Michael Kors suit she wore for the debut of the White House Christmas decorations in December was an old favourite from 2009. The blush-coloured Byron Lars dress worn at December’s Christmas in Washington concert made an appearance back in 2010, when Paul McCartney was at the White House to accept the Gershwin Prize.
“She’s sending the right message: that it’s not really a time to buy a lot of new clothes. So many people are in such trouble economically and she’s in tune with that,” Betts says. “And I do think her inaugural gown is going to be something she has worn before.” — Los Angeles Times/MCT

New twist on old trends
Since Michelle Obama and her kitten heels first stepped onto the national stage in America five years ago, the keys to her personal dress code have remained remarkably consistent. Pearls, cardigans and brooches are all components of the first lady’s look. Conservative relics of an old world Washington wardrobe? Not the way Obama interprets them, always adding her own twist. Here are a few of her most influential style signatures.
Obama breathed new life into the most traditional of heirloom accessories by choosing updated interpretations of the classic pearl necklace, which have included the edgy (tangled strands of blue-tone pearls by Los Angeles-based designer Tom Binns worn with a Marchesa gown to a state dinner in March), as well as the affordable (the $98 multicoloured Torsade necklace by Pearl Collective worn several times, including in June on the campaign trail).
Obama has used belts to enhance the fit ‘n’ flare silhouette of her clothing and to accent her small waist. Two of her favourites are a clear plastic belt by Sonia Rykiel and a studded black belt by Azzedine Alaia.
She’s worn her fair share of understated pale pink polish but has also tried more daring colours, giving women of all ages permission to do the same without fear of not being taken seriously. The grey-lilac nail colour Obama wore while giving a speech at the Democratic National Convention in September sparked a flurry of news stories — and a trend. The colour was Artistic Nail Design Soak Off Colour Gloss Vogue. Obama made headlines with her polish again in December, when she chose a neon yellow pedicure for her Hawaiian vacation.
Brooches are no longer an old lady accessory, thanks to Obama, who has treated them in a casual, modern way. For a state dinner preview in March 2012, for example, she wore an elaborate Saloni bird brooch clipped to the neckline of a simple pale grey Zac Posen tank dress with navy blue waistband. The brooch was just what she needed to tie the whole outfit together.
Obama replaced the traditional uniform of Washington power women — the jacket — with soft cardigans, proving that femininity can also be powerful. She has worn cardigans in every colour of the rainbow, in shrugs, cropped and long lengths. Among the notables are the sparkly sequin cream J Crew cardigan worn with a mint-green pencil skirt to 10 Downing Street in 2009 and the avant-garde Junya Watanabe asymmetrical argyle cardigan worn to the Royal Opera House on the same London trip.
Some wondered whether the Jason Wu white chiffon, one-shoulder gown Obama chose for the 2009 inauguration (pictured) was better suited to a summer wedding than a wintertime Washington ball. But the dress worked as a potent symbol of a fairy tale moment and kicked off a trend in Hollywood and beyond. At the Golden Globes this year, for instance, several stars, including Julianne Hough and Amanda Seyfried, walked the red carpet in white. Obama repeated the white-at-night look in 2011, wearing a Tom Ford gown with crisscross straps and long white gloves to dinner at Buckingham Palace.

Not one to be held hostage by shoe trends — or to hobble around in too-high heels — Obama has stuck with her tried-and-true kitten heels by J Crew and Jimmy Choo. The lesson? Following the whims of fashion should be secondary to what works for you. — By Booth Moore, Los Angeles Times/MCT

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