The power of Style: Michelle Obama comes into her own

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Audrey. Jackie. Grace. Kate.

And now, Michelle? To those first four style icons of the 20th century -- whose influence is still felt and seen in designer studios, runways, stores and on the streets -- add first lady Michelle Obama, avid mixer of J.Crew cardigans, Alexander McQueen gowns, Thakoon Panichgul dresses and wide Azzedine Alaia belts.

In a new, thoughtfully written book, "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style," Kate Betts, former editor of Harper's Bazaar and now a writer at Time magazine, explores how Mrs. Obama may not just be the 21st century's newest fashion icon, but a new kind of first lady -- not either stylish or substantive, but both.

Not only that, with her unique mix of high-low style, the first lady is giving the mass retail industry a boost -- and not just with those famous J.Crew cardigans.

After Mrs. Obama wore a blue flowered dress from Talbots on the cover of Essence magazine, "we sold 2,700 of those dresses in a few weeks," says Meredith Paley, vice president of public relations for the women's apparel chain.

Indeed, Mrs. Obama has worn Talbots clothing 13 times, including a $59 Talbots blouse with a $2,000 L'Wren Scott skirt.

Mrs. Obama actually represents a few historic firsts. Certainly, she's the first African-American first lady, but she is also perhaps the first to truly benefit from a post-feminist sensibility, notes Ms. Betts.

As a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and with experience as a corporate lawyer, this is a woman who is secure enough with her "seriousness" credentials to be more playful and adventurous with her fashion choices, Ms. Betts says.

"She is classic but not cookie-cutter. She's someone who's so tall, she can wear a full skirt with flat shoes -- she can basically wear anything."

Of course, not everyone sees her as a fashion arbiter.

"She doesn't influence me at all," says E.B. Pepper, owner of the eponymous women's clothing store in Shadyside. "She doesn't really wear cutting-edge pieces. Hers is more of a look that appeals to the average woman."

With her shirtdresses and belts, her bright colors and paste jewelry, it does seem as if Mrs. Obama is trying to appeal to a broader audience than the chic women who patronize Ms. Pepper's store in search of glamorous, carefully edited clothing.

The first lady's sartorial persona has been analyzed before -- in April 2009, Mary Tomer, founder of the website, came out with a vividly illustrated book, "Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy," enthusiastically chronicling her style evolution from senator's wife to campaign wife to presidential spouse.

It was a work in progress.

When Mrs. Obama first started campaigning with her husband, she wore "sculpted, pin-striped Armani power suits and streamlined MaxMara-style tweeds," a message that said she was "dressed for corporate conference rooms and exasperated by the inconvenience of her husband's far-fetched ambitions," writes Ms. Betts, which only reinforced a stereotype thrust upon her by conservative columnist Cal Thomas as "an angry black woman."

When Mr. Obama clinched the nomination in June 2008, her approval ratings had sunk to 43 percent. But within a matter of weeks, Ms. Betts says, Mrs. Obama "appeared to make a vital mid-course correction," not just in the tone of her speeches and interviews, but the way she dressed, replacing the hard suits "with soft cardigans and June Cleaver-esque shirtwaists."

"She embraced the 'Mom-in-Chief' chic," she adds.

It's a far cry from the 1960s, when Lady Bird Johnson referred to the first lady's clothing requirements as "the harness of hairdo and gloves." Most first ladies who followed her adhered to that dictum, even as, Ms. Betts posits, they fell either into one or another category: substantive or stylish.

Mrs. Obama -- who has been photographed running barefoot on the White House lawn in black capris, blue J.Crew cardigan and aforementioned studded wide belt -- has rewritten that protocol.

For that we have feminism, and its aftermath, to thank, Ms. Betts says.

"I call Mrs. Obama a sort of post-feminist icon. She can do it because the feminists paved the way before her, even as she tells audiences that women can't do it all, that you can only have about 60 percent. Fifteen years ago she couldn't have gotten away with that statement."

That's because women who had grown up on feminism's front lines felt they had to wear mannish power suits to assert their seriousness.

Exhibit A: Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, as first lady, mostly stuck to business attire, although there were some awkward attempts to be fashionable. Mrs. Clinton's hairdo did change frequently, a sign, Ms. Betts writes, of "how difficult it was for her to reconcile the guise of domestic responsibilities with the guise of the professional woman. ... In retrospect there is something almost touching about her insecurity about what to wear and how to navigate the baffling contradictions of the day."

On the other hand, the boxy jackets and cloth coats favored by Laura Bush, the pearl strands favored by Barbara Bush, the previously worn inaugural dress worn by Rosalynn Carter, sent a different message: I'm not a fashionista.

Those first ladies who were fashionistas stretch back to this country's founding: Dolley Madison's European silk turbans. Mary Todd Lincoln's ball gowns. Frances Cleveland's close-cropped hair style. Grace Coolidge and her red (sleeveless!) flapper dresses. Nancy Reagan and her Adolfo "ladies-who-lunch" suits.

Thanks in part to the emergence of color television, Jacqueline Kennedy's style made a huge impact, perhaps more than any other first lady -- not because she didn't possess substance, but because she was of a generation and class raised to put husband and children first, with French couture, furniture and food a close second, third and fourth.

Her Schlumberger jewelry and elegant, sparely cut clothing -- often in brilliant shades of pink and marigold -- made her stand out in a crowd. Who can forget the photo of Mrs. Kennedy, utterly simple in a black sheath, next to Princess Grace of Monaco, another style icon who famously flubbed her appearance at the White House by wearing a hat that looked like a bathing cap?

Substance? There was Eleanor Roosevelt, of course. And other, less obvious choices, Ms. Betts notes: Betty Ford lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment and advocated for breast cancer research. Pat Nixon worked to make the White House more accessible to visitors by installing ramps for the physically disabled and traveled on "personal diplomacy" to places such as Peru to visit towns ruined by earthquakes.

Mrs. Obama is substantive, too: She advocates for children's nutrition and military families, and for the most part, declines to talk about her interest in fashion.

Ms. Betts, who obtained White House press credentials to observe Mrs. Obama for her columns on politics and fashion, says she never heard the first lady really speak about anything to do with the clothing she wore.

In "Everyday Icon," one of Ms. Betts' "10 commandments" of first lady style is "that to talk about it is to defuse the style's impact. There's an old saying, 'never complain, never explain,' and in this case, the White House is letting the images speak for themselves."

More than perhaps any first lady before her -- with the exception of Jacqueline Kennedy, "Michelle Obama understands that style is much more than an aesthetic choice or political tool. It is the expression of one's life, one's way of being," Ms. Betts writes.

Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949. First Published February 15, 2011 5:00 AM


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