The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy”

Just in time to commemorate the first anniversary of the Obama victory comes Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy , a commemorative scrapbook by Mary Tomer, founder of the popular blog .

Before I cracked open the book-a heavy white rectangle emblazoned with an illustration of a smiling Mrs. Obama dressed in one of her best colors, Tyrian purple-I hesitated. I get worked up about the Mrs. O. fashion discourse. I don’t mean to pull up a college seminar table here, but you have to confess that the general refusal to criticize her outfits, or anything about her style or physique or bearing, is mystifying. Some of her outfits are terrible.

I held the book up and decided as an ideological preview to flip to the election night Hell Dress. This is a neat diagnostic trick. Does Tomer grapple with the ungainly sheath? On the contrary. She writes:

The world didn’t realize it then, but Mrs. Obama had made a major statement about her future fashion choices: she was ready to take chances with fashion-forward designers; she was ready to mix up her style; and she was dressing, ultimately, to please herself. In that regard, the evening was not just a victory celebration, but a declaration of fashion independence.

Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy is 130-page fashion hagiography.

But there is something in Tomer’s editorial approach that reveals why this must be the case. As she traces the ascent of Michelle Robinson from Chicago’s South Side to FLOTUS, the political milestones and accompanying dresses are peppered with Q&As with designers and jewelers. These interviews are miniature success stories on their own. Many of them are immigrants or non-WASPs, self-starters who made it in highly competitive fashion worlds. The stories of hardship, dedication, success sing in a potent chorus as we progress from the first event of the primary campaign (orange Maria Pinto dress) to the book’s closing on the April 5, 2009 visit to Prague, the final day of the Obama’s European visit (black Michael Kors pencil skirt paired with a Moschino big bow blouse and an Alaïa belt). Our fierce admiration of Mrs. O.-and our reluctance to openly criticize her frocks, even when they merit it-matches the extent of our desire to believe in the American Dream at a time when it is harder and harder to do so.