Everybody loves Michelle

A round table about America's first lady-elect, what it means to be a fashion icon and whether it's wrong to bag on that red and black dress.

By Sarah Hepola

Published November 6, 2008 9:30PM (EST)

My mother told me that as she was dressing for work Wednesday morning, she decided to take a fashion cue from Michelle Obama. She wore black and red, a tasteful cardigan. She even wore her fancy cubic zirconia earrings, which is pretty darn showy for a woman who sewed her own wedding gown. "I'm just so glad to have a role model in the White House again," she told me. Laura Bush is actually the best argument for George W. Bush, as far as I'm concerned, but her fashion, not to mention her politics, was not my mother's bag. I think my mom admires Hillary Clinton greatly, but I don't think she ever aspired to dress like her. (Did anyone?)

Today, a short day after history was made, we're seeing swarms of stories online and in print about Michelle Obama's fashion. I can't say I have welcomed it with open arms. Yesterday, when a press release came from Women's Wear Daily that read, "Who did the first lady-in-waiting Michelle Obama wear to her husband's victory speech last night? Find out NOW at WWD.COM," I wrote a snarky e-mail to the Broadsheet list that read, "A chilling peek into the black and grizzled soul of Women's Wear Daily." Because honestly -- honestly! -- the effing axis of the planet practically shifted, and some hack had to pimp their fashion coverage? It makes me want to see my tuna melt yet again.

And yet, here was my mother -- my role model, my friend, my hero -- telling me about Michelle Obama's wardrobe.

"Jackie Kennedy was a fashion icon," she said, "but she seemed somewhat, I don't know, vapid. Michelle is a woman of substance."

I had to agree. I'd love to have cocktails with Michelle. I would love to have her in my book club. I would like to grab coffee sometime. My mother went on to point out that Michelle buys clothes at Target (though, frankly, lady's been known to rock some Jimmy Choo boots as well, and those don't come in the Massimo line).

The upshot? I asked my Broadsheet buddies what they thought of all this. I knew they'd have answers -- opinions, at least. Our conversation is below:

Lynn Harris: I think what people are responding to is the fact that she just seems so real, wherever she shops. And a superficial, but understandable, way to respond to (if not emulate) that -- especially now that she'll be more inscrutable and gate-kept than ever -- is through field examination of her plumage. Honestly, though, Michelle Obama could wear stirrup pants and wax lips, and I'd still hang on her every move.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: As I said watching Barack's acceptance speech, "It's a great night for America. Shame about the dress." What WAS that?

Abby Margulies: I'm relatively uninterested in fashion, but I'm as caught up in the idea of the Michelle Obama "image" as the next person, maybe because, throughout an election that endlessly invoked cries of sexism, racism and the thorny issues of identity politics, Michelle Obama has remained totally composed, unself-conscious, confident. She wears a dress if she wants to wear a dress. She plays the role of mother without allowing that role to define her. And when she appears with our celebrity-like president-elect she looks like his partner, not his supporter.

I realized I was totally smitten when I read that Michelle played Mariah Carey's song "Hero" for Barack right before the election results were announced, and I actually thought it was sweet (rather than nauseating). I'm sure my sentimentality will be short-lived, but for now, idealism is a nice change.

Kate Harding: I was feeling guilty about my interest in Michelle Obama's wardrobe until I read Gina's defense of her own interest in it at Michelle Obama watch this morning. "I believe that I can do both, admire Michelle Obama's amazing academic and professional accomplishments AND be giddy over seeing her set fashion trends for the the ENTIRE WORLD." Exactly! Yes, the excessive focus on famous women's appearance is often sexist and nauseating, but then, a lot of people -- including both Michelle Obama (reportedly) and me -- just love pretty dresses, feminist principles notwithstanding. I hate that women are expected to look a certain way and savaged by the press when they don't, but I also eagerly look forward to seeing each new Michelle dress. What can I say? I wear at least an extra-large; I contain multitudes.

Like everyone else, I was unimpressed by the Election Night dress -- possibly just because the cardigan threw off the look. (However, having been in Grant Park Tuesday night, I can't blame her for that. Beautiful as the weather was for the time of year, I was happy to have my fleece after the sun went down. And I can admire practical sartorial choices as much as daring ones -- which might be why Hillary's pantsuits never bothered me.) But overall, I have been crazy about Michelle's wardrobe, and I can't wait to buy as many knockoffs as possible in the coming years.

Vincent Rossmeier: Forget Michelle Obama. When is Todd Palin going to put out a line of casual menswear? I imagine lots of pelts, bulky snowmobile jackets and moose-skin loafers. It'll be clothes for all those real Americans who also want their state to secede from America. In one word: dude-ish. Until he does, I worry that men everywhere will be left wandering in a wilderness of fashion bleakness. If we can't mimic our dress on a famous political celebrity just like all the women who are mimicking Michelle Obama, what are we going to do?

Rebecca Traister: I have little interest in Michelle Obama's wardrobe, at least any more than saying that she is an absolutely beautiful woman with generally exquisite taste (that, incidentally, is certainly not always from Target, and doesn't need to be; the woman is/has been a high-earning lawyer and executive).

What I find absolutely fascinating, in an almost anthropological way, is the impulse of everyone around me, and me, on some deep and wordless level, to regard this new first family with a totally antiquated brand of awe. I did not think that in this modern, ironic, Internet-speedy age of celebrity journalism that Americans were still capable of the kind of wide-eyed, high-pedestal admiration not only for a famous person but for a family -- an idealized, attractive, nuclear family. Yes, it feels like what I always imagined the Kennedy years must have felt like (today's New York Post headline is "Bamalot"), with people trying to imitate them and dress like them and be like them. But that's always honestly sounded silly in historical retrospect, given what we now know of the Kennedy marriage, yes, but also just because it feels too innocent and naive to ever have been real. Yet here we all are -- including me and my mother, two politic cynics of the first order, who last night, honest to God, had a conversation about what kind of puppy the Obamas might get for the White House. I also had that conversation with my boyfriend. And also, the people here in my office. I can say with complete honestly that as a lifelong animal person and pet owner, I have never paid two seconds of attention to any White House pet. So what is happening to us?!

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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