Any major political event of the past four years involving Michelle Obama has come with an analysis of her clothes. It starts on Twitter and seeps across the internet, to blogs and newspaper websites, and ultimately to the printed pages of magazines, until every one of her photos is wrung dry of all potential meaning. Her 2012 election night outfit will prove no different, but that metallic burgundy dress and black jacket seem beside the point this time. The amazing thing about this fashion moment — and this night — is that it signifies another four years of truly, exhaustively obsessing over her and her style in a way that perhaps no one has ever been obsessed over.
First, I’ll get the election night look out of the way briefly: the dress was a repeat of a Michael Kors dress Michelle last wore publicly as FLOTUS in 2010. The fact that the dress is old instead of new reaffirms what about Michelle’s style fascinated everyone four years ago. She repeats clothes, like we all must do, in a time when most famous people seem excused from this plebeian obligation. Even for events as high profile as her husband’s reelection speech, she’s comfortable wearing an old dress. Yes it’s a designer dress, yes it’s expensive, but Michelle makes it relatable. For someone in her office, that is an exciting quality. If Michelle spent the next four years wearing everything she wore the past four years, the obsession over her style would probably be just as feverish as we match up her looks to the date she last wore them.
I find it hard to imagine the obsession over her style continuing for another four years, because it is just such an unusual thing, and an unusually BIG mainstream thing for the fashion industry. I remember the first months of Michelle Obama’s fashion icon status. On the campaign trail in ‘08 it started becoming clear that she had the potential to incite feverish enthusiasm by doing something as simple as wearing clothes, in the way few icons — Jackie O., Princess Diana — had done before her. Fashion writers like me began scrupulously logging every single outfit she wore, and my editors at the time joked about how we were setting ourselves for a really tedious eight year-long Michelle dress obsession. The possibility was too exhausting to fathom, so we laughed nervously and pushed it aside. And now, here we are.
These next four years could solidify Michelle as one of the most documented, analyzed, valuable dressers ever. Women like Jackie O. and Princess Di became fashion obsessions that would transcend their time, but they lived in a pre-Internet era when demand for new images of their clothes could hardly have been met at the same pace it is today. The blog Mrs. O, for instance, feeds this need, documenting all of Michelle Obama’s clothes as she wears them. Similar fan sites exist for celebrities, like Rihanna or Lady Gaga, but the obsession with their current tastes ebbs and flows with their various phases as artists and fashion plates. Few wonder or study how entertainers’ clothes are impacting labels’ bottom lines (Harvard researchers determined in 2010 that Michelle’s appearances in various labels’ clothing was worth $2.7 billion over the first year following Barack’s election.) Also, with most public figures, we’re less obsessed with discerning when something has been worn before or is from a place like H&M that we average people shop at, because we don’t expect or even really want them to be average. Most fashion icons are an escape. Michelle is an escape — but one that also seems real.
The one other person who’s inciting a style obsession as significant as Michelle right now is Kate Middleton, but she’s held her duchess title for a fraction of the time that Michelle has been first lady. And Kate turned into such an obsession by following Michelle’s brilliant recipe: she shops at normal-people stores like Topshop, always looks ladylike and put-together, and clearly follows and enjoys fashion, but doesn’t let it overshadow her human-ness. Like Michelle, she’s fancy, but she’s used her clothes and image to make you think that you could have lunch with her and it wouldn’t feel that much different from hanging with a girlfriend. (Rihanna, on the other hand, I couldn’t imagine having lunch with and it being normal in any way at all.)
So here’s to another four years. We on the internet created the beast that is Mrs. Obama’s style, and we’ll definitely be blogging and tweeting and pinning it through to the end for the next four years and probably beyond.
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