Fashion Advice for Michelle Obama

Hint: Don’t dress like Jackie Kennedy.

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Click here for a slide-show essay on Michelle Obama’s fashion choices.

Dear Mrs. Obama,

Congratulations to you and your husband on a thrilling victory. It must be unnerving to find, a week after such a historic event, that all anyone wants to talk about is your wardrobe.

Forgive us. We pro-fashion pundits can’t help but chime in on the importance of clothes. Especially now that we’ve been treated to this absurdly style-happy election. We’ve spent the past 20 months talking about Clinton’s décolletage, McCain’s loafers, his wife’s earrings, Obama’s sunglasses, and, of course, Sarah Palin’s pricey makeover. We just can’t stop.

But we also want to talk about your wardrobe because we think you have great style. We are attracted to it and inspired by it, and—with all respect due the future first lady—I thought I’d offer a few humble thoughts on what makes your style so great and what you might keep in mind as you get dressed for the next four to eight years.  

I don’t take the opportunity lightly, given that you are already perched on Vanity Fair’s“Best Dressed” list and rumored to be on an upcoming cover of Vogue. But what you wear is important, especially when the nation, and the world, is watching you. We’ll be looking to you for optimism and for guidance. And we want you to represent.

You clearly love clothes—no woman who wears prints and color doesn’t. And it seems you are one of the lucky women who likes her body—you show your curves with confidence and pride. Where most wives of politicians reach for the cheerful, standard issue skirt-suit (think Jill Biden’s citrus number on Election Night), you have more imagination.

I’m thinking here of the abstracted rose-print silk dress you wore the evening your husband accepted the nomination. Few other women in a similar position would have made such a daring choice. The print was big, the colors were regal without being dour, the cut was utterly flattering—and utterly unbusinesslike. The dress said: I’m no cookie-cutter lady. The aqua short-sleeved jacket you wore over gray stripes on the campaign trail wasn’t particularly “first lady like,” but it was charming. And  the exotic purple feather pin  on Larry King showed a feminine theatricality that was just plain fun.

The choices you’ve made thus far demonstrate traits that will be useful in a first lady: practicality, flexibility, a sense of humor, a sense of glamour. Yours is a particularly American style—relaxed, confident, classic, and not overly label-happy. You’ve embraced American designers, from populist low-cost outfitters like White House/Black Market (the awkwardly named makers of the now famous $148 dress you wore on The View) to big-gun American designers like Narciso Rodriguez (who made the cranberry wool shift you wore at the debate in Nashville) and new stars like Thakoon Panichgul (who made the print dress you had on in Denver).

You’ve also embraced the casual chic of some classically American looks. I love the way you wear your belt over a fitted sweater, like Mary Tyler Moore. I love that you wear flat shoes with a full skirt: so Maria from West Side Story.

I even love that you make the occasional mistake. It shows that you are open-minded, even risk-taking. But the white floral-print J. Crew dress you wore to the University of Mississippi debate was too much. White is rarely good on camera and, you’ll excuse me, never good from the rear view.

And I must ask because everyone wants to know: What about that Narciso Rodriguez dress in Grant Park? Wonkette called it “hell-colored.” Sixty-five percent of those polled by said they hated the dress. Tight satin? Beading? The obi waist? The weird little cardigan? Mrs. Obama, black with red is too jarring a color combination for a first lady. It’s too dramatic. It recalls an eerie portrait by Goya or a costume from Tosca or Carmen. All too fiery when we want you to soothe. Especially in an image that will be beamed around the world and live online forever.

By now, I imagine you must find the comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy flattering but tiring. At 44, you will be the youngest first lady since Camelot; the comparisons are inevitable. That doesn’t make them accurate.

Like Kennedy, you clearly understand the power of clothes to telegraph messages. In the midst of Sarah Palin’s Wardrobegate, you wore wore inexpensive J. Crew separates  on The Tonight Show, telling Jay Leno, “You can get a lot of great stuff online. (“All Politics Aside … this outfit gets our vote” reads a current J. Crew ad, an effort to cash in on your endorsement.) Another savvy choice: You wore evening pajamas by Isabel Toledo  for a fundraiser hosted by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour in New York last June. Toledo is an insider’s designer; all black was a smart choice for meeting fashion deities (and the pope.) 

Like Jackie Kennedy, you understand that dressing for your audience is important. But that’s where the comparison ends. Where Kennedy’s wardrobe was constant, a calculated piece of stagecraft, your style is more casual and more spontaneous. Which makes it much more interesting.

Jackie’s White House wardrobe was essentially custom work from one designer, Oleg Cassini; you buy off the rack. Jackie bought clothes and returned them after wearing them. What you wear, you own. Jackie often spent tens of thousands of dollars in one shot; no one could accuse you of lavish spending.

It seems, happily, that we are more obsessed with your wardrobe than you are. Surely you are less fixated than the proprietors of MrsO, an obsessive new blog devoted to your sartorial choices. But I’d like to leave you with a few specific thoughts. (Like you, I’m sure, I hate it when people bring me a problem without bringing me a resolution.)

1.Live your life, but remember you are being photographed. I don’t mean that you should leave the tracksuit at home when you take the girls for the occasional Big Mac. You’re a mom, and we love it. But I do think you could be more attentive to what is photogenic for big occasions when you are not on private time. The easiest thing to do is have someone take a digital picture of you, see how your look photographs. Try a profile shot as well—cameras obviously are not always face-on, and unwanted bumps and lumps will be revealed this way. And think about the background: The Hell Dress on that blue stage was harsh.2. Stop shopping for day clothes right now. Repeat outfits. Wear your favorites often, and change the accessories. That’s a tried-and-true rule for great style during hard times. Women across the country will appreciate it. 3.Spend, sometimes. You are allowed to indulge, especially for state dinners, meeting Queen Elizabeth and Mme. Sarkozy. We want you to look awesome. And spending is good for the economy.4.Stick with Maria Pinto, your long-time dressmaker in Chicago. (The aqua dress she designed for your speech at the convention and the vivid coral number you wore to your recent White House visit were terrific.) She’s a win-win. You can show hometown pride, support a small business, remain loyal, and she makes you look better than anyone.5.A note on accessories. Please don’t wear gumball pearls like Barbara Bush. In fact, please don’t wear pearls at all. We voted for change, and we love your outsize jewelry. So far you’ve avoided the tired Washington classics—the pearls, the miniflags, the bald eagles, the diamond billboards for your home state. Love it. The big glittery brooches are so distinctive. Love them.6.Beware of inaugural ball up-dos. Nancy Reagan’s chignon at the 1981 inaugural looked imperious. (The fact that she was wearing a $10,000 gown didn’t help.) Hillary Clinton, I hate to say, looked like a Grand Ole Opry star with curls piled high at 1993’s inaugural. But you looked fabulous on the cover of Monday’s New York Post, with your hair pulled back for a night out on the town with the future president. If that’s preview of Jan. 20, I say do it. Just don’t do it again for a while.7.Keep wearing American designers, and wear more of them. Oscar de la Renta has been the favored designer of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, and there’s no reason to resist his beautiful clothes on occasion. But Donna Karan is perfect for your strength and curves. Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren make the classic sweaters and skirts you love. Isaac Mizrahi makes a beautiful gown. Diane von Fürstenberg and Tory Burch favor the easy shapes and bold prints you love. Remember, these designers collectively employ hundreds of American workers, and the American fashion industry could use your support right now.8.Inauguration Day. Wear Maria Pinto to the swearing-in ceremony and Thakoon to the inaugural balls. This is no time for risk-taking. Pinto has been dressing you the longest and deserves the honor. I’d say she’s guaranteed to make you look your best. And if you’re going to wear a hat, call Albertus Swanepoel, New York’s last great milliner. Only he could pull it off.I think you would be incredible in a Donna Karan draped gown and coat for evening. But Thakoon Panichgul is the ideal choice to design your inaugural gown. The 33-year-old Thai-born, Omaha-raised, New York-based designer represents the very best of American opportunity and hard work, and he will capture the romance and the majesty of that incredible night for the rest of us to remember.