Michelle’s High ‘Card’ Diet

The political pundits might be weighing in on the merits of President Obama’s recent 8 day European tour, and whether or not he accomplished what he set out to but, by almost all accounts, Michelle Obama’s official fashion ‘coming-out party’ was a resounding success. Even if you don’t agree that the First Lady has formally solidified her place as a bonafide fashion icon (and I would think you’re in the minority), you can’t deny that she gets an A+ for effort.

And even if you didn’t love each and every thing the First Lady wore, and disagreed with some of her choices, you have to hand it to her — she is bold, experimental, takes risks, and exhibits an enthusiasm and exuberance that belies her relative inexperience with regard to fashion. Hey listen, she is relatively ‘new’ to all this, not having been a child of privilege where clothing and style were part and parcel of one’s world, and not having spent all of her waking moments immersed in fashion.

While she gets my ‘thumbs up’, that is not to say I don’t have my criticisms. And since everyone else seems to be weighing in on the subject, I thought I’d add my two cents. I had mixed feelings about the dress she wore to meet Queen Elizabeth (there was a lot of discussion about this), and I must admit I was actually surprised to find out that the black and white dress (featuring a white fitted tank top and black full knee length skirt), was designed by Isabel Toledo, who is known for her sculptural designs and innovative use of fabric. Though it looked chic and classic with Mrs. Obama’s pearls, and beneath the Jason Wu black satin ‘Opera’ coat she wore when arriving at the Palace, my overall impression was that the dress itself looked too much like a black skirt paired with a Hanes cotton undershirt (in other words, a bit too casual and not luxe enough). A better choice for the occasion would have been the Thakoon custom-made, mismatched floral coat and dress ensemble she wore when the First Couple arrived in Strasbourg. It featured a black and hot pink floral silk satin knee length coat and fitted short sleeved bateau neck dress in the reverse floral (pink with black), which made it interesting and special.

Another criticism, is that I’m sort of distracted by her rather nondescript footwear; and I actually think the J. Crew green leather pumps which she wore on Inauguration Day, to go with her Isabel Toledo ensemble, almost ruined the outfit. They certainly didn’t add anything.

For someone who obviously puts a lot of effort into her clothing choices and accessories, the ‘special occasion’ shoes are not up to par. They basically all look alike: unremarkable black pointy toed kitten heeled pumps (she is taller than most so I’m sure she wants to wear low heeled shoes just to be politically correct and not overshadow everyone including her husband). Still, boring pumps are really unacceptable or, rather, unnecessary these days since footwear ‘rules’ and the one easy place to add a touch of unexpected whimsy to any outfit is with shoes. Plus, one can easily find amazing shoes with a variety of heel heights (at all prices), especially when you have resources, connections and the title of First Lady of the United States.

Believe me, I am hardly suggesting she goes out to buy gladiator sandals, platform booties, or those disgustingly aggressive, hookerish platform sandals that are not only all over the runways, but all over on the streets. Not only do I find them ugly, unflattering and distasteful, but they look uncomfortable, unwieldy, and belong on the ‘street’ if you know what I mean. I don’t get them at all. What I’m proposing are gorgeous, elegant, chic, and feminine shoes with a little verve, spirit and personality (a T-strap, a D’Orsay pump, a Chanel cap toe, something with a ribbon bow across the vamp, a mod buckle, a flower decoration, or something in a pale metallic or strong color), which would put the exclamation point and finishing touch on the First Lady’s wardrobe. Mrs. Obama seems to favor shoes from J. Crew where, if you click onto www.jcrew.com, you will find a number of interesting and distinctive sandals and pumps in a variety of heel heights from flat to high. Of course, there’s always the masters, like Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Roger Vivier, whose inspirational footwear is available the world over, and whose flat and low heeled shoes are as distinctive as their towering heels. One need not sacrifice style for comfort.

But hey, this is just my opinion, it is all subjective. Besides, nobody gets it right all the time. Even seasoned fashion pros like Anna Wintour and Carine Roitfeld stumble now and then (and how!). Don’t forget, Diana Vreeland once said, “Bad taste is better than no taste”. At least she’s an apt pupil and is obviously having fun with fashion. When is the last time we saw that in the White House? Let’s give her a hand for daring to break the mold and for presenting herself in a way that is such a glorious and welcome departure from First Ladies of the past, whose often ill-fitting, stereotypical wardrobes may have borne well-known design labels, but they were completely bland, unflattering, predictable, and forgettable.

What is most appealing is that one never knows what to expect from Michelle; her choices are sure to surprise, and she is willing to think out of the box. And though Michelle Obama is not a fashion pro (the brilliant Harvard Law School grad has more important things to do than spend hours a day planning her wardrobe or thinking about what she will buy next…LOL), you wouldn’t know it from the roster of designers she chose (not just American, but French, Italian, Japanese) and the creative way she mixed it all up with the aplomb of a seasoned front row celebrity editor. Quite frankly, her 8 day photo op, looked as though it could have been styled for an editorial in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar.

What I also found interesting about the outfits Mrs. Obama wore to accompany her husband to Europe, was that they were the furthest thing from boring, humdrum, obvious, and predictable. It’s all about bold choices, bold statements, and tweaking the classics for the First Lady. She is not cookie-cutter in any way and nothing about her (as well as her family and their new found world position) is ordinary or run of the mill, including her fashion persona. In addition, each and every one of the ensembles was modern, relevant, and-of-the-moment, yet classic and untrendy enough to not be off-putting. And they had obviously been painstakingly put together in order to perfectly coordinate with each event. While there was much variety in terms of style, silhouette, color, and pattern, everything was in complete harmony with the First Lady’s personal style, and appropriate for each specific occasion.

What could be more ‘schoolish’ than an argyle cardigan, which she wore when she visited the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London? Aha. But there was nothing remotely banal or ordinary about the offbeat mismatched sky blue, maroon, navy, black, and white argyle cardigan designed by avante garde Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, (one sleeve was plaid one was solid, and half the front was plaid and half was solid), which she worn over a teal Jason Wu full skirted dress. And, when she visited Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre, there was no way she would not put a smile on the faces of the young patients, in her sparkly cream cardigan and aqua pencil skirt by J. Crew.

For dinner in Baden Baden, she went for that perennial standby — a little black dress. But she upstaged everyone, including the First Lady of France, in her divine and flattering Azzedine Alaia black dress with fitted torso and full skirt, and the designer’s cropped short sleeved black cardigan. To tour Prague, she selected the always appropriate combination of black and white, using a white bow blouse by Moschino, which was worn beneath a black Alaia cardigan and paired with a Michael Kors black pencil skirt. This was belted with her favorite Alaia black studded belt. Once again, scale is everything and you’re not going to find Michelle in a run-of- the-mill garden-variety pussycat bow blouse. Leave it to the First Lady to find the biggest, ‘baddest’ bow out there. Of course, thanks to her enviable height, she can get away with it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps the most effective ensemble, in terms of simplicity and modernity, was the fitted black sleeveless Narciso Rodriguez dress, worn under a cropped Alaia cardigan, upon arrival in Prague earlier in the day. It showed off her stunning athletic form in the most appropriate and subtle way, but made quite a statement all the same. Yet, once again, I couldn’t help but think how much the minimalist all black outfit cried out for black and white spectator pumps, rather than the plain black leather shoes she opted for.

But do you know how I gauge a true fashion star? It’s someone who looks great all the time, not just for evening soirees and special occasions. And just a few days before Easter, they showed Mrs. Obama with her daughters on television planting their White House Garden, looking not only appropriate, but gorgeous and stylish in her brick red nylon anorak, skinny jeans, and hip athletic trainers.

In the meanwhile, there have been comparisons between Michelle and the late Jacqueline Kennedy (understandable because of her straight bob, her love of chic sleeveless sheaths, and an embrace of a rather classic look), but am I the only one who sees more of Anna Wintour than Jackie O, with her love affair with sleeveless shifts, full skirts, offbeat color and pattern mixes, and of course, cardigans (a long time Anna Wintour favorite)?

In her column for The New York Times, (The End of ‘Wife Wear’, April 6), Suzy Menkes observed that Michelle Obama’s embrace of the cardigan “is a signal that powerful women no longer need to prove their strength by dressing shoulder to padded shoulder with men” (the only jacket that the first lady wore in Europe was taut, short and again from Alaïa). From my point of view, that is somewhat besides the point. The First Lady is undeniably great looking with her radiant smile and perfect grooming but, because of her toned, athletic 6 foot frame, I don’t think the power suit would necessarily be a good choice for her. It might come across as looking a bit too hard edged and aggressive. And she knows it.

Let’s face it, Michelle doesn’t need clothing to empower her, give her an air of confidence, or impart a strong imposing stature. The choice of the cardigan softens her, becomes her, and completely suits her. And that is really at the heart of the matter. All her choices, while varied and often seemingly unconnected, are connected in that they reflect her own personal style, tap into her different sides and fashion personas, and become her.

Speaking of Michelle’s high ‘card’ diet. It is ironic that considering the broad shouldered power jacket from the 80’s has made a comeback and was the hit of the recent runways the First Lady has been playing up the soft, versatile, accessible, and often inexpensive cardigan for all it’s worth. And great timing, taking into account the state of our economy and the way we are all trying to save money and still look great.

What she has single-handedly done to revive the ‘lowly’ cardigan (not to mention J. Crew, http://www.jcrew.com/) is the stuff of legends. I’m sure this has put a smile on the face of many a sweater vendor, including Lynn Hiriak whose company is an homage to the iconic wardrobe staple and is called appropriately, Cardigan (http://www.cardigannewyorkcom/). You can bet this will have an impact on the consumer and the marketplace. Unsurprisingly, it already has. The Today Show’s Ann Curry has long been a jacket girl (usually favoring a smart black fitted jacket for her on air appearances) but, last week, I noticed that she began wearing sweaters and especially, cardigans, over her crisp white shirts.

And in the online audio video slide show of Bill Cunningham’s ‘On the Street’ column this past Sunday, “Greatest Show”, www.nytimes.com/style Bill made mention of the return of the cardigan sweater, describing one young woman clad in a cardigan over a short breezy dress as being the “epitome of high style”, and noting this is something that we will be seeing more of as we head into spring.

– Marilyn Kirschner
-Photos via HuffingtonPost.com

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.


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