Being the first Black woman in the White House is, without saying, a big responsibility. Unfortunately for former First Lady Michelle Obama, assuming the Presidential position meant that everything she did was heavily scrutinized. Unlike her white counterparts, she experienced immense criticism about absolutely anything at all – from every single word she said to every move she made, she was being watched and analyzed. This was especially true about her outfits. In an op-ed article for Elle Magazine, Obama revealed just how she handled the scrutiny and engineered her White House style strategy. Interestingly, she also shared how everything she wore was paid for out of pocket.
Of course, it’s easy to assume that the White House would foot the First Family’s wardrobe and styling bills, this wasn’t the case with our forever First Lady Obama. She wrote: I paid for all my own clothes and accessories—with the exception of some items like the couture-level gowns I wore to formal events, which were lent to me by the designers and would later be donated to the National Archives, thus adhering to White House ethics guidelines. Speaking of designers, Obama also wanted to bring attention to lesser-known ones who didn’t always get to bask in the spotlight. Because she knew she always had millions of eyes on her, she used her platform as the First Lady to uplift these designers and give them the recognition they deserved.
She explained: I wanted to draw attention to and celebrate American designers, especially those who were less established, even if it sometimes frustrated the old guard, including Oscar de la Renta, who was reportedly displeased that I wasn’t wearing his creations. For me, my choices were simply a way to use my curious relationship with the public gaze to boost a diverse set of up-and-comers. Additionally, perhaps for this same reason, Obama didn’t want to be known for a high-fashion, high-budget wardrobe either — because that’s not who she is. Instead, she made sure to diversify her selection in a manner that reflected her own beliefs and style while still balancing public expectations. The former First Lady wrote: As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high-end, and I’d also be criticized if I was too casual. So I mixed it up. I’d match a Michael Kors skirt with a T-shirt from Gap. I wore something from Target one day and Diane von Furstenberg the next.
Nonetheless, ultimately, everything boiled down to what the public thought of her. She recalled one incident wherein she received immense backlash for merely wearing a pair of shorts on a warm, sunny day. Obama described: My pearls, my belts, my cardigans, my off-the-rack dresses from J. Crew, my apparently brave choice of white for an inaugural gown—all seemed to trigger a slew of opinions and instant feedback… Late in the summer of 2009, we went on a family trip in the Grand Canyon, and I was lambasted for an apparent lack of dignity when I was photographed getting off Air Force One (in 106-degree heat, I might add) dressed in a pair of shorts.
But she didn’t let this get her down. Instead, Obama made sure she would turn the situation around in order to bring attention to and raise awareness for communities that needed. She divulged: It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say. In London, I’d stepped offstage after having been moved to tears while speaking to the girls at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, only to learn that the first question directed to one of my staffers by a reporter had been “Who made her dress?” This stuff got me down, but I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to use what power I could find inside a situation I’d never have chosen for myself. If people flipped through a magazine primarily to see the clothes I was wearing, I hoped they’d also see the military spouse standing next to me or read what I had to say about children’s health.
Well, while she’ll always be remembered for her groundbreaking initiatives, Obama will also be immortalized as a pinnacle of style during her time in the White House.
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