That Lady in Red

I think Rachel Maddow and I were feeling the same level of comfort/discomfort and curiosity about Michelle Obama’s dress the night of the Inauguration.  I say this because when she announced the designer as Jason Wu she said something like “I know you want to know” and then giggled a little.  Plus I think both of us were dying of anticipation before Mrs. Obama appeared.  But this morning I read Amy Davidson’s piece about the dress in the New Yorker and the light went on.  Her dress that night and what she wears in public are a political statement and she understands that.

Then there she was, the First Lady in red.

We only got a glimpse before Obama started dancing with his wife, getting in  the way of our view of the dress, but it was clear that she had  succeeded—gathered halter straps, v-shaped back, and all. The worst one could  say was that it was a little flouncy and not as striking as the  dress that Naeem Khan designed for the India state dinner. And then a  greater revelation: Was a journalist ever as unabashedly excited about anything  as CNN’s Alina Cho was about Michelle’s “extraordinary decision” to turn to the  same designer twice—Jason Wu, who had, as an unknown, designed her dress for the  first inaugural. Then, as now, Wu was surprised; the First Lady had a number of  possibilities assembled, whether out of indecision or arranged as decoys. She  had managed to suppress leaks without putting anyone in jail.

Inaugural dresses  are not just casual cultural relics; not for any First Lady, and especially not  for Michelle Obama. If her husband is a transformational figure, so is she. The  dress worn to a first inaugural goes to the Smithsonian, and the one worn to a  second goes to the National Archives. This is unfortunate for Hillary Clinton,  since  the dress she wore in 1993 was less nice than 1997’s, and represented a low  from which the inaugural gown has only slowly made the steep ascent back. It involved  purple lace, and otherwise defies description. (Clinton wore a pants suit on  Monday.) Looking at that dress now makes one wonder about the nineties—or about  how long the eighties lingered. It was worse than the dress that Rosalynn  Carter recycled from a Georgia gubernatorial inaugural ball in 1977: that  one has some retro appeal, a bit of Leia in Cloud City. Laura  Bush, in red lace and then moony sparkles, wasn’t awful, but that’s all.

The dress that Michelle Obama wore last night represented the full return of the  inaugural gown from the realm of oddity—from being the high-necked, political  version of whatever Cher or Jennifer Lopez wear to the Oscars. Her 2009 dress  looked too much like a lesser, puffier version of Nancy  Reagan’s, in 1981, to be a redeemer of the form. (In the spirit of  bipartisanship, Nancy looked great.)

michelle-dress.jpg

And this is why the dress – and everything she wears is political.

And so Michelle Obama’s inaugural dress is an important subject. To disagree  is to dismiss the idea that politics involves theatre. But that is just for a  start: fashion is also a field (and a business) that matters, and one that has  reacted to the First Lady as a force rather than just as a customer. This is why  the choice of Wu was a surprise, and, in some quarters, a disappointment:  Shouldn’t someone else get a chance to attract investors? At the same time,  there was, in the fashion press, something of a thrill at the definitiveness of  it all: she believed in fashion, and she was committed.

Although it can be harder to talk about—if easier to feel—there is also the  question of how she has confronted images of black women in American culture.  Her first term was so successful that, unless one is a regular viewer of Fox  News or a listener of Rush Limbaugh’s show—which still give her regular doses of  hate—one could forget the resistance to having her in the White House. When her  husband ran for President in 2008, there were barely veiled insinuations about  whether the role of First Lady was really right for her—whether she was too  angry, or could really feel comfortable. (One suspects that a sense of the  pressures on her may explain why she is not taken to task as much as she might  be for the price of these clothes.) Once, when she wore a red dress to a state  dinner, she was accused of sympathizing with Communist China. Michelle might  have responded to that, as many women in similar, if less prominent, situations  do, by being flawlessly proper—some unchallenged idea of ladylike, wearing  dresses and suits and jewelry indistinguishable from Cindy McCain’s or Ann  Romney’s. Or she could have affected dowdiness until getting to the point where,  as Justice  Sotomayor put it, ““They just can’t fire me over the earrings anymore.”

Not being a fashionista, when I saw the red dress, I thought she was flaunting victory.  That the color was celebratory and rightly so.  And she looked fabulous!  But I’m still not sure about the bangs.

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