Among other accolades, Michelle Obama is a fashion icon. She has graced Vogue’s cover several times. On newsstands across the country, her face is a familiar fixture.
But even Obama, who literally inspired a Harvard Business Review article about how her fashion choices influence markets, has faced backlash for her style. In her new book “Becoming,” which has sold more than 2 million copies in North America, Obama writes about how superficial criticism informed her behavior as one of the world’s most prominent women.
“It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say,” Obama writes. “This stuff got me down, but I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to use what power I could find inside a situation I’d never have chosen for myself.”
Going into her tenure at the White House, Obama understood she would face expectations and burdens other first ladies had avoided by virtue of their skin color. “If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me,” Obama writes. “I was humbled and excited to be First Lady, but not for one second did I think I’d be sliding into some glamorous, easy role.”
She also was no designer expert: “I knew a little about fashion, but not a lot. As a working mother, I’d really been too busy to put much thought into what I wore,” she wrote.
And yet, much like a 21st-century Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — arguably the most glamorous first lady — Obama became known for her style. Part of her popularity reflected the fact that she wore recognizable brands: J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Target. She was not a movie star, and she didn’t behave as such. But when an event called for pomp and circumstance, she was able to rise to the occasion — in Gucci, Versace, Givenchy or Alexander McQueen.
And so Obama’s style was both attainable and aspirational, offering guidance for women who wanted to look professional and put together. Of course, Obama had an army of stylists helping to ensure she did not commit a faux pas — a luxury most women cannot afford.
In “Becoming,” Obama almost mocks the attention her clothing received, trumping more important topics that she might have rather championed.
“When I wore flats instead of heels, it got reported in the news,” she writes. “My pearls, my belts, my cardigans, my off-the-rack dresses from J. Crew, my apparently brave choice of white for an inaugural gown — all seemed to trigger a slew of opinions and instant feedback.”
“In London,” she continues, “I’d stepped offstage after having been moved to tears while speaking to the girls at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, only to learn that the first question directed to one of my staffers by a reporter covering the event had been ‘Who made her dress?'”
Though Obama writes about how she was judged for her fashion, and how that judgment put her in a difficult situation, not everything about being in the spotlight was bad. She explores how she derived strength and energy from her White House wardrobe; her dress at the first inaugural balls even revived her after a whirlwind day.
“In my life so far, I’d worn very few gowns, but Jason Wu’s creation performed a potent little miracle, making me feel soft and beautiful and open again, just as I began to think I had nothing of myself left to show,” Obama writes. “The dress resurrected the dreaminess of my family’s metamorphosis, the promise of this entire experience, transforming me if not into a full-blown ballroom princess, then at least into a woman capable of climbing on another stage.”
Though Obama’s fashion journey has not always been a smooth one, it has culminated in what most would consider a success story. It is a shame she felt her looks mattered more to people than what she said, but perhaps that’s changing as millions of Americans read her words in “Becoming.” After all, she has proven to be much more than the “well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties and ribbon cuttings” she knew she never wanted to become.