Michelle Obama's sartorial decisions for the various presidential functions are being discussed all over the media, so I will also pitch in. Most critics are looking at the cost of her outfits, but I will look at their design.
It isn't the first time I've critiqued Michelle's outfits. I've always found her dress decisions to be fascinating. She has a whole army of designers and stylists to help her, yet she always manages to look off.
So here's my brief take on the clothes she wore to the most important days of her husband's life (I think this second term is even more important than the first, since Obama has made it clear that he intends to finish off what he started during his first term).
Michelle wore designer Thom Browne's (not spelled Tom Brown, God forbid the conventionality) what looks like a military coat for the Monday of the inauguration events, including the visit to church and while walking a couple of stretches of the procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
She "accessorized" the coat with purple gloves and a fashionable reference to jack boots by designer Reed Krakoff, who had created an interesting blouse for Anne Romney, which I wrote about here. Krakoff also designed the "shrunken sweater" and the pattern-less dress Michelle wore at the official swearing in, which I write about below. Is jackboots how Krakoff sees Michelle, along with a juvenile shrunken sweater? It is interesting that these designers want a powerful, militaristic Michelle, yet also want her to look innocuously feminine (almost like a small girl), as though to sartorially dampen the former with the latter. And Michelle obliges.
Here's what Krakoff gushes about her:
It was such a pleasure to work with someone so iconic. She really epitomizes the Reed Krakoff woman, a woman of incredible strength and modernity and a woman who knows her own sense of style. That's the most gratifying part of it. She's the ultimate person to dress.
Thom Browne's ensemble includes the Michelle "touch" with that studded belt. I'm not sure how Michelle got to Browne. He's a morbid, "avant-garde" type of designer. One of his runway shows involved models climbing out of coffins with gauze wrapped around their heads. She has worn his clothes twice before.
Browne says he designed the coat/dress inaugural ensemble based on a silk jacquard tie design.
He says in an interview:
She has a really strong sensibility and style of her own. And she likes well-tailored clothes so the inspiration was doing something that looked tailored and structured and fitted through the body and somewhat A-line for the skirt and the dress ... something that's as strong as she is as a person and as an individualSo, I wasn't far off in surmising that Browne was giving Michelle a masculine, power look.
Yet, the "reverse" patterned dress beneath the coat (the squares are white) makes it look lighter and more whimsical. It is more like a frock rather than a dress. The black squares give the coat a heavy and stern look. Her top is her familiar shrunken sweater. Once again, these designers vacillate between an aggressive, dominant Michelle, and a subdued, girlified one.
J. Crew's designer says about the "already sold out" belt:
The embellished belt the First Lady wore over her Thom Browne coat wasn't a belt. "[It] was actually a sash—she fashioned it into a belt," Lyons explains. "We won't rerun that. She did her own thing to that, and out of respect, we'll let her have that moment."It was hard to imagine that a seasoned designer would produce such an ugly item. J. Crew's designer Lyons explains that she was only partially responsible for it. I'm sure it is against the advice of her stylists that Michelle decided to stud-up this belt.
Michelle herself never seems to know if she wants to be a power woman or a debutante. Her long (new, as everyone reminds us) bangs say "small girl" but her very heavy make-up, probably with false eyelashes, almost says bordello woman.
Below are Cathy Waterman earrings Michelle wore with her coat/dress outfit. She wore a more subdued pair of diamond studs for the church service, along with grey heels, but changed all this to for her harsher look for her walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I couldn't find a better image, nor a copy of the earrings at Waterman's site. It is meant to go with the Thom Browne outfit. It matches, of course, but compare that to the lighter, more visible (but not overwhelming) pair that Jill Biden wore (which I've posted below).
Below is a close-up of her stylishly gloved hands holding the bibles (plural) for Obama's swearing in.
The studded, military-style belt becomes the background to the swearing in. And true to the strange, alien, nature of the ceremony, Obama had two bibles at the Monday event. Martin Luther King's was there (it was Martin Luther King Day that Monday, after all). But, its real purpose was underline Obama's adamant "integration" of blacks, and the signs of his administration to come. The Lincoln Bible was also a nod to blacks.
Jill Biden's coat, which she wore at the same event, although a plain grey, has a feminine touch with the bow. It is made from silk and wool, so has a subtle sheer. Her designer is Lela Rose, who isn't exceptional (she's no Dior), but she somehow managed to put together this elegant piece for Mrs. (Dr.) Biden.
The dress under the coat is also by Lela Rose. It is not a complete match (or a "reverse" match like Michelle Obama's coat-dress ensemble), but works well together with the silver/grey coat.
Below is Jill Biden's mature "bangs" and subdued makeup. I am also struck by Jill's amiable, almost humble expression, compared to the hard, over-confidence Michelle portrays.
And the white sapphire and mother-of-pearl earrings she wore were designed by Kara Ross, which Ross describes as "maze button drop earrings," and which fit proportionally, with the overall outfit.
The Obama family was in the Blue Room of the White House for the official swearing in. Michelle wore a blue dress. For the Blue Room? But the color might be the only thing worthy of the room, and even that is too dark against the turquoise blue of the room. It isn't blue, but a black and blue undecipherable pattern. Again, she opted for a frock-like dress for this formal room and formal occasion. The designer is Reed Krakoff, who is "thrilled" that she chose his design. He also provided her with the shrunken, cropped sweater, which Krakoff calls a "bolero," which is now becoming her signature.
The Obama children showed up in birthday party frocks to the official swearing in, looking uncomfortable under the watchful portraits behind them. Young Sasha seems to follow her mother's fashion "sense" with that gladiator belt she's strapped around her light and summery dress. Malia, as I've noticed before, seems to be rebelling against something (her outspoken mother?) with the odd mini-dress. By late adolescence, young women usually want to look pretty, but perhaps not in our era.
The red gown Michelle wore to the inaugural ball is by Jason Wu. It is similar to Wu's sack-like dress he designed for her for the last inaugural ball in 2008, and has the gladiator cut she has worn in other occasions that shows off her powerful upper-arm muscles. Wu must be learning fast, to keep his post as court designer, unlike J. Crew's team who had to relinquish their final stamp on their design for their inability to read the First Lady's desires.