Mrs. Obama chose a relatively unknown female African-American designer, Laura Smalls, for her dress when her husband accepted the Democratic nomination. We bet that designer’s social stock skyrocketed! Laura Smalls’ very feminine silhouette combined with a striking pattern and off-the-shoulder cut made this look flirty, yet formal. (Photo: Getty Images)
First lady Michelle Obama wears J. Mendel to the BET Honors in January 2102, a show-stopping red number that takes advantage of her stature. Here is a woman who is not afraid to impress or be noticed. (Photo: INF)
During her trip to the Olympics over the summer to support Team U.S.A. in London, the first lady wore this stunning jacket by J. Mendel. As beautiful as she looked, some balked at the frock’s $7,000 price tag. Yet as a style moment, it certainly helped etch Obama into one’s mind as a classic, timeless beauty. (Photo: Getty Images)
Michelle Obama wowed in this Tracy Reese dress, creating an immediate demand for the custom creation worn for her speech at the Democratic National Convention. Somewhat body-conscious in construction it is outfits like these that made the first lady into a walking advertisement for her health and fitness initiatives. (Photo: Getty Images)
Ever fashionable even while flexing her athletic skills, first lady Michelle Obama wore this gorgeous L’Wren Scott ensemble while attending a pro-fitness event for school children in Washington, D.C. in March. (Photo: Getty Images)
This Michael Kors gown worn to the Kennedy Center Honors this year in Washington, D.C. was another gasp-worthy dress. Drenched in gold and encrusted embellishments, the first lady is able to make what could appear gaudy effortlessly elegant. (Photo: Getty Images)
In (very cool) mom-mode, Michelle Obama attends the Nickelodeon’s 25th Annual Kids’ Choice Awards with daughters Sasha and Malia. She rocked metallic skinny jeans by Helmut Lang and a sequined v-neck top by Wes Gordon, making mothers across the country proud. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
In March, the president and first lady hosted the prime minister of Great Britain and his wife. Mrs. Obama wore a bold statement necklace and Marchesa gown in rich blue for the occasion. This updo hairstyle shows a versatility with her coiffure that she often exhibited in 2012. (Photo: Getty Images)
First lady Michelle Obama wore Naeem Khan for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner held in April for a look that absolutely thrilled the public. Unlike recent first ladies, Michelle Obama is not afraid of color, large accessories, or showing her arms and shoulders. (Photo: Getty Images)
Here, first lady Michelle Obama wears a designer who was new for her this year, Thom Browne, to a presidential debate in October. The first lady also wore this dress during the Democratic National Convention, an act that would for her become a trend. Her “victory” dress on election night was also a previously worn Michael Kors piece. (Photo: Getty Images)
First lady Michelle Obama’s looks have ranged from funky to formal this year, but always pushed the envelope of style. Which look was your favorite? (Photos: Getty Images)
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First lady Michelle Obama has written a place for herself into fashion history in the four short years she has been a national figure. The middle-aged mom of two who balanced her career as a lawyer and executive with attentive care for her family has morphed into a style goddess; no longer scheduling school trips for her kids alone, you can now catch Michelle Obama gardening with dozens of public schoolers in designer jeans and boots to die for.
Mrs. Obama’s current clothing choices can christen a small luxury label as a new, exclusive must-have, even as she wears accessible mid-market brands that also benefit from her grace. Amazingly, this ability to beautifully wear items ripped from runways mixed with everyday basics has endeared her to the public. This tender relationship, built in part on the back of fashion, has helped Michelle Obama garner support when she takes action on serious issues.
Writing for The New York Times, fashion reporter Cathy Horyn sums up the power Michelle Obama now wields as a glamour figure, as the first lady perhaps struggles now to balance her meaningful work on issues such as health and the needs of military families with the sometimes frivolous nature of frocks.
“Michelle Obama has used celebrity and style to redefine the role of first lady,” Horyn muses on the evolution of the first lady’s look and influence. “Now, with four more years in the White House, can she step off the glamour pedestal and broaden the reach of her powerful voice?”
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This is a question that will surely be on many people’s minds as first lady Michelle Obama looks ahead to 2013. The power of her clothes and what she does with that power is a tool Obama will likely use with even more savvy, speaking to the public through buttons and brooches as much as through prose.
While Mrs. Obama has worn almost countless ensembles this past year — on the campaign trail, to the Olympics, and as a hostess at the White House — there are a handful that stand out as the embodiment of her striking sartorial power, which makes the world take notice and listen to the substance underlying the style.
These, first lady Michelle Obama’s 10 best looks of 2012, capture the innovative spirit, iconic taste, centered presence, and lively friendliness that have come to symbolize her tenure.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb. Additional caption text by Suzanne Rust.