On Michelle Obama, Fashion, and the First Lady Role

Michelle state dinner
Michelle Obama, wearing Alexander McQueen, with American designer Oscar de la Renta, who disapproved of this dress.

I'm not gonna pretend I don't love seeing and commenting on what Michelle Obama wears. I do. She's gorgeous and stylish and with her embrace of bare legs in the summer and sweaters instead of suit jackets, she has helped my generation of young professional women win some perennial fashion arguments with our mothers. No, you don't have to dress like a man at work!

Kate Betts makes all those points in her Times op-ed about the controversy surrounding Obama's choice of a gown by a non-American designer, the late Alexander McQueen, for the state dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao. But Betts' piece also reminds me how incredibly retro the role of First Lady is: "Americans look to Michelle Obama to set the emotional tone of his administration," she writes. "As we are with all first ladies, we are subconsciously invested in her looking good — it’s almost as if there’s some sort of national pride at stake."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: It is irksome to see this Harvard-educated lawyer and longtime professional anti-poverty advocate portrayed primarily as a fashion plate or image of idealized femininity. Why is it happening? Because we, as a nation and a culture, are invested in the idea of a First Lady as a national hostess and tastemaker instead of accepting first ladies for what many of them actually are: trusted advisors to and co-equal partners of our presidents. 

That's why we should get real and admit that being First Lady is an actual job that (and I know this is radical) maybe even deserves a paycheck

Imagine fitting a First Gentleman into the role we expect Michelle Obama to play, and you'll see how outdated and absurd it is. For a few years, I was obsessed with pointing out, over and over again, that the male spouses of the few female G20 leaders never showed at those summit spouse photo ops.


Why aren't the first dudes proud to be there? Maybe because there is something a little ridiculous about this fashion-focused first lady circuit–something a man like Joachim Sauer, the noted chemist married to German Chancellor Angela Merkel–doesn't really want to participate in. (That said, any first gentleman big enough to show up for a photo like this would earn my undying respect.)

Okay, back to Michelle Obama: Melissa Harris-Perry has written persuasively about how Obama's glamour and embrace of traditional motherhood and wifehood "subverts a deep, powerful, and old public discourse on black women as bad mothers," even while presenting a "potential danger … Michelle Obama's public persona of traditionalism could be used as a discursive weapon against women who do not conform to this domestic ideal."

And Michelle Obama herself is way more than a domestic ideal. I'll close this out by posting my favorite evidence of just how damn awesome and progressive Michelle Obama is. Here she is–clad simply and all in black, with her hair pulled back–giving a rousing antiwar speech in Iowa in 2007, way before a lot of the bullshit set in. 


Update from my Michelle Obama archives: Our First Lady has always been a working mom; she has never "stayed home"

One thought on “On Michelle Obama, Fashion, and the First Lady Role

  1. bluegumbo

    The FLOTUS is and always has been a powerful position within executive branch of government. Although Michelle doesn’t receive a paycheck she is definitely a powerful voice, if not the most powerful within presidents cabinet.


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