First lady Michelle Obama
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)

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.