When considering the effect Michelle Obama has had on fashion and first lady protocol (which she flouts with astounding grace), a question bubbles to the surface: Did Laura Bush even wear clothes?
Before Mrs. Obama, we'd become so used to our first ladies dressing to disappear, we'd gotten dangerously close to equating female power with shapeless pantsuits forever.
In the new book "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style," veteran fashion journalist Kate Betts (the pen behind Time's style coverage and a former editor-in-chief for Harper's Bazaar) dives into what makes Obama's style so alluring, and how she's changed our perception of what a first lady should look (and act) like.
It's a great read -- a years-long study on the first first lady to wear Converse All-Stars and Alexander McQueen.
We caught up with Betts to chat about the book:
All the Rage: How did this project come to be?
Kate Betts: I actually had been following Michelle Obama during the campaign. I was watching her transition, stylistically speaking, from power-mom to mom-in-chief –- going from pinstripe pants suits to floral-print dresses. She was embodying the role of a first lady, and doing it with her style, in her house. I thought it was interesting that she was making herself more relatable and accessible during the campaign. I’ve always been interested in the question of why style matters. Michelle Obama is the perfect lens to explore that question.
What has she done that's so different from past first ladies?
What's interesting is that she came to Washington as the first African American first lady. One would have thought she would choose the path of political wives. Instead, she took this counterintuitive aproach and chose to stand out. She’s dressing for herself, not her job. The first year she was in the White House, she didn’t really talk at all. She spoke through her style.
A lot of people make comparisons between Jackie O. and Michelle Obama, and I think it's a little bit of a stretch. What they do have in common is they come to the White House with a certain fluency in fashion. Hilary and Laura didn't have that fluency of how to use their style to set the tone of the White House.
What are some of your favorite Michelle Obama looks so far?
[Betts describes an image of Obama walking the dog in turquoise jeans and Converse All-Stars] That image sort of sums up her approach to her positions -- that picture could be you, it could be me. It’s not what we expect.
At the same time, she has unbelievable glamour too. She can do that whole red-carpet thing so beautifully. She has an incredible ability to convey so much about her position through her style. And I think that’s unusual for a first lady.
Has Obama seen the book or said anything about it?
I got a note from her press person, Katie McCormick Lelyveld. It was nice. They said it was a lovely book.
Mrs. Obama has been criticized for wearing international, not just American, designers. Unjustly so?
That's not her way of doing things. Her self-posession and confidence, to me, define American style more than any label in a dress would. The McQueen dress [that she wore to the state dinner for China] she obviously chose for the color as a gesture to China.
She famously mixes high and low -- that's a first for a first lady, right?
She’s definitely the first first lady we’ve ever had who wears H&M. That’s what makes her so accessible for us. ... That’s something every one can relate to.
-- Emili Vesilind
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Photo: Michelle Obama in Isabel Toledo. Credit: Clarkson Potter