Michelle O: A New Age of First Lady Fashion

Not since the days of Jackie O have Americans been so transfixed on the fashion choices of a First Lady. Just as journalists have scrutinized President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office, fashion writers have chronicled Michelle Obama’s 100 days of style.

Her style has inspired a comic book, two books and a blog called Mrs-O.org. There are countless online slide shows of her ensembles, wearing brands and labels from J. Crew to Isabel Toledo, pair after pair of Jimmy Choo kitten heels and often a signature belt cinching her waist. She is a fashion risk-taker, daring to step out in dresses from new, young designers and arousing a bit of controversy for wearing a sleeveless dress in her first official White House portrait. The world has become fascinated with the First Lady’s distinctive yet proper style.

On Thursday evening, I came across a post in the “Washington Whispers” section of the U.S. News and World Report Web site solely dedicated to pictures of Mrs. O wearing metallic sneakers at a food bank. The post, titled “Michelle Obama’s Latest Fashion Statement: Shiny Sneakers” by Nikki Schwab had received 15 comments in 18 hours. I immediately recognized the unidentified sneakers as a pair of Lanvin shoes (priced just barely under $600) and wondered what kind of feedback the First Lady would receive after the media would undoubtedly reveal the shoes’ hefty price tag.

Lo and behold, I find this afternoon’s article on the New York Daily News’ Web site called, “First Lady Michelle Obama steps out in Lanvin sneakers and they’re only $540!” by Amy DiLuna.

Critics are sure to lambast her pricey choice in footwear, but they should actually pay attention to the simple and sensible outfit she paired it with: a J. Crew cardigan and practical Capri pants. Yes, wearing $540 shoes while volunteering at a Washington D.C. food bank may seem like a strange choice, but it is yet another unconventional stylistic decision that Mrs. Obama has made to cement her status as a budding fashion icon. After all, I never thought I’d see the day when a First Lady would wear sneakers with gray grosgrain ribbon laces and flashy metallic pink toe caps.

Whether you love or hate her fashion choices, it’s clear that the world has become obsessed with the First Lady. Larry King recently had a “Michelle Mania” segment in which several women shared their views on Mrs. Obama’s image, in both political and fashion terms.

What can we, as members of the public, do today when there’s 24-hour news coverage and endless bloggers bombarding us with images of the First Lady? I believe that the American public should appreciate her choices when they please us, but dwelling on what may irritate us (take the Lanvin sneaker incident, for example) is unnecessary.

On the same Larry King show, Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan remarked, “To have so much attention being paid to clothes is a bit overwhelming and you want to make sure that the other things don’t get lost in the conversation.”

These “other things” — the First Lady’s work in her home, her community and around the world — should not be overshadowed by the public picking apart her every sartorial choice.

Of course, as a fashion editor, Givhan still offered a bit of commentary on Mrs. Obama’s style and pointed out that she rarely wears a typical suit: “She’s not wearing things that fade into the background.”

Alexandra Schulman, editor of British Vogue, told ABC News that the Brits are “completely in love” with Michelle Obama, in an April 2 article about the Obamas’ trip to Europe. According to ABC, it was the first time in nearly half a century — the last time being Jacqueline Kennedy’s trip — that Europeans had such anticipation for a visit from an American first lady.

“She’s something different,” Schulman said. “She looks like she’s enjoying herself. She’s glamorous; she has a fresh glamour. We love it if it’s another country’s political wives looking glamorous. We have more problems and are more critical when it’s our own and our politicians’ budgets that are being spent on their dress, sadly.”

As an American, I don’t have an issue with the degree of luxury in Michelle Obama’s style. She appeals to American women as well as women around the world because she demonstrates how to mix high and low fashion in order to create a modern look. Often, Mrs. O snubs high fashion altogether: A famous example is the $148 Donna Ricco dress from White House/Black Market that she wore on the “View” and sold out of stores shortly after.

By shunning stuffy suits and often dressing in modern ensembles from accessible labels, it’s no wonder that entire books, such as Mandi Norwood’s “Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion” will soon be sitting on women’s shelves around the world. However, I’m sure that it wasn’t her style alone that gave Mrs. Obama her spots on People’s “100 Most Beautiful People” and Time’s “The World’s Most Influential People” lists. While her idiosyncratic style definitely deserves recognition, it’s the First Lady’s grace and confidence in wearing everything from argyle sweaters to glamorous gowns that has captivated the public eye.