Michelle Obama is the first first lady in recent history to knowingly or unknowingly use the visibility of her sartorial choices to identify with every strata of American society — creating nearly $3 billion of wealth for the clothing labels she dons in the process. For example, when she chose then little-known designer Jason Wu for her inauguration gown, Wu instantly became a household name who was later picked to partner with Target to launch a capsule collection at affordable retail prices. With one stroke, Obama’s choice enabled Wu to achieve the American dream of growing his upscale business, while it gave every woman the opportunity to stock her closet with a Jason Wu “original” at accessible prices.
Unlike most of her predecessors, Obama is not faithful to one designer, house or label. Jackie Kennedy almost exclusively wore Hubert de Givenchy. Nancy Reagan was famously faithful to a small cadre of designers including Bill Blass. Even when Betty Ford downgraded her closet to address inflation concerns during her husband’s term, she (publicly) went with one choice, Albert Capraro. Conversely, Michelle Obama matches high-fashion pieces from the likes of Balenciaga with off-the-rack finds from stores like White House Black Market. She even extends her favor to indie labels like Zero Maria Cornejo.
The first lady’s closet represents the vastness of America’s fashion appetites, plus its multi-tiered class system — and as a result, the country’s economic identity crisis. While America celebrates the ability to amass great wealth, it resents displays of said wealth — it seems especially by Mrs. O. Just as Sarah Palin’s salt of the earth positioning as a hockey mom initially worked as an antidote to one-time presidential hopeful John McCain’s inability to remember how many homes he owned, Palin’s “I’m every woman” imaging boomeranged on her when it was revealed that the 2008 GOP campaign spent $150,000 to outfit her. Palin vehemently insisted she did not ask for the wardrobe makeover, but it made no difference. She could no longer claim “every woman” authenticity once those price tags had been spied.
American resentment seems to grow in some circles when those displaying wealth don’t fit the archetype Americans have become accustomed to, even if the rich have earned it. When “news” broke that Michelle Obama sported a (gorgeous) $6,800 J. Mendel jacket to the pre-Olympic reception for heads of state in Buckingham Palace, conservative blogs swooped in yet again to bash her spending habits. These same outlets called out the “lamestream media” for critiquing Ann Romney’s decision to wear a $990 Reed Krakoff blouse on CBS Morning News in May, while believing more should have been made of Obama’s “queenly” pick.
Of course, many of these right-leaning outlets have remained mum about the personal fiscal choices Ann Romney has made regarding her clothes, and her vastly greater bounty of riches with which to splurge. More importantly, most have nothing to say about her husband’s proposed tax plan, which promises to disproportionately benefit those who can afford both Reed Krakoff blouses and J. Mendel jackets without a problem. Conservative watchdogs also forget to note that the style watchers that hailed Michelle Obama’s J. Mendel jacket lambasted her choice of a simple cardigan, blouse, and skirt three years ago when she met England’s queen, calling the ensemble unfit for her first official visit with British royalty.
Meanwhile, just weeks ago, the first lady was attacked for her support of low-cost fashion retailers like H&M and Target by Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “I think it’s ridiculous that she’s always lauded as this example of democratic fashion or that she’s so American because her fashion is accessible,” Cline told The Huffington Post. “Why are we so excited when we see our first lady in cheap, imported clothes?”