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More Than Her Label

Why force a fashion angle on Michelle Obama’s charisma?

Written by Shefalee Vasudev | New Delhi |
November 14, 2010 4:53:00 pm

Why force a fashion angle on Michelle Obama’s charisma?

Not once during the time that Michelle Obama was in India did she wear fashion on her sleeve. There was no fashion event on her agenda,no designer among the people she met. She didn’t even carry a handbag.

To reduce this charismatic lady to what she wore,her “vintage dresses”,her “Sixties look”,her “nod to the Indian kurti”,or her “silver kitten heels” is forcing a story where none exists. Some sections of the media succumbed to what would be termed a lifestyle story — woman-oriented,fashion-focussed. Incidentally,fashion journalists forgot to mention the colour of the tie Barack Obama wore for dinner at 7 RCR. Powerful men are supposedly above the narcissism we worry fashion might lend to their worthiness. But it doesn’t harm to describe a lady’s dress and its price in INR. Or,does it?

Maybe the White House released a note describing Mrs O’s brooch as “a starburst from Erickson Beamon” and the grey dress in which she stepped out of Air Force One as “intricately detailed”. I don’t know. Whatever that was,stories on her style made fashion victims out of us,not an icon out of her.

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Michelle is not a fashion icon. She is what the fashion world seeks. A powerful woman with an Ivy League pedigree,an enviable former job,a commitment to fitness,good looks and the smart,no-nonsense appeal of a real woman. This much-loved wife of the world’s most powerful man (he calls her the “rock of my life”) gives us a bold visual of what confidence and elegance should look like in today’s world. She carries off fashion exceedingly well but doesn’t want to be defined by it. “Michelle will be a reminder that we’re not all hotheaded,foaming-at-the-mouth drug addicts,always ready with a quick one-liner and a roll of the eyes,” wrote Allison Samuels,an African-American Newsweek journalist,during Obama’s campaign. That holds true even today. Michelle is neither a feral nor a floral feminist.

Some women enjoy fashion and revel in it. Profiling them through what they wear is apt. Carla Bruni,for instance,is a self-confessed Dior Lady. Jackie Kennedy made a fashion statement with her pretty hats,brooches,belts,outcurled hair and shoes. Svetlana Medvedev,wife of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev,too has never disguised her fondness for glamorous clothes.

Michelle rewrote her script as First Lady after briefly charming the fashion industry. From “about-to-be-the-next-Mrs Kennedy” she began,as a writer said,to advertise “her Everywoman frugality at every chance she got”. Ever since she wore the Isabel Toledo lime-green dress for the swearing-in ceremony and the Jason Wu ivory gown with applique flowers and Swarovski cyrstals for the inauguration ball,her personality as a fashion icon became America’s favourite soft story. Called the Commander in Sheath by Vanity Fair,which put her on their best dressed list for the second time in 2008,she made the high-street J.Crew cardigans a craze. Michelle seemed enamoured of this role for a bit,even agreeing to be — after her husband’s victory — on the cover of US Vogue.

But after that she stopped feeding the Fashion Icon theory. Not once since then has she worn any big name in global fashion or allowed herself to be held hostage by a trend. She doesn’t zip down to Paris for fittings nor attends fashion shows. She does not deride fashion,she just doesn’t propagate it. During her India trip,the US First Lady looked elegant,a tad too simple at times. What she wore and how she looked receded into the background as her words and warmth took over. Her hair was maybe Sixties as some insist,but here is what Lanita Jacobs-Hurley,associate professor of anthropology at the University of South California,once said,“In African-American culture,hairstyle can signify class,professional standing and spirituality. It is a kind of racial politics. Michelle conveys a sense of realness in her hairstyle. It says she is an attractive,modern woman who is aware of her femininity and sexuality.”

What then did Mrs O make of the fashion trends we assigned to her in India? Hopefully she had a good laugh. Sense of humour,after all,will never go out of fashion.

(unfashion@expressindia.com)

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