The Fashion Laws Of Politics: Obama-Style Politicians aren't known for their cutting-edge fashion sense and most First Ladies have leaned more towards traditional, conservative styles. But future First Lady Michelle Obama might just be an exception to the usual blandness of Washington fashion.
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The Fashion Laws Of Politics: Obama-Style

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The Fashion Laws Of Politics: Obama-Style

The Fashion Laws Of Politics: Obama-Style

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, at this time of economic crisis, we get some wisdom from John Rogers, Jr. He is a founder of Ariel Capital Management. It's one of the largest minority-owned money management firms in the U.S., and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, if you live in the Washington D.C. area, as we do, then you've seen an awful lot of gray and black and navy with sensible pumps, some hair cuts that seemed to have come straight from the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. Sorry, but we have to keep it real. The nation's capital is not exactly the capital of style.

Well, pay attention everybody because a new fashion sheriff is coming to town. Love it or hate it, First Lady Michelle Obama's style is very different from what we've seen in recent years. And it's not just her attire. Her frank manner and her playfulness have already gotten noticed by the press and by ordinary Americans. Some call her personal style real and refreshing, while others are tisk tisking away.

Joining us now to discuss first lady style and how Michelle Obama could change it are Robin Givhan, fashion editor for the Washington Post, hairstylist to the stars Anthony Dickey, and Catherine Allgor. She's a visiting professor of American history at Claremont McKenna College in California, and the history of first ladies is one of her areas of expertise. Welcome everybody. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. ANTHONY DICKEY (Celebrity Hairstylist): Thank you for having me.

Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Fashion Editor, Washington Post): Thank you.

Dr. CATHERINE ALLGOR (Department of History, Claremont McKenna College): It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Catherine, I want to start with you as the historian. In a generation, we've witnessed so much change in the roles women play in public and private life. You know, there's the amazing Hillary Clinton trajectory, first lady to senator to presidential candidate. What is expected of the first lady now very different from what was expected, say, I don't know, 50 years ago?

Dr. ALLGOR: Well, you should never ask a history professor to talk about the past because I think we have to go back to the beginning. I do want to say that clothing and style was an important political weapon from the very beginning, right from Martha Washington.

But the person who really put fashion on the first lady map was my girl, Dolley Madison. And what she was doing was serving what I like to call as the charismatic figure for her husband's administration, meaning a kind of larger-than-life figure that can project emotional and psychological messages in her case of legitimacy and authority and viability, and she did this by adopting a kind of pseudo-aristocratic style.

And what I would say to you is, that capacity as the charismatic figure has become even more important for the first lady as we become a modern nation-state and one driven by the media. So, symbolism is really important for the first lady.

MARTIN: So this is not a trivial conversation. This actually is - I mean, we were going to have it anyway, but now, we can feel good about ourselves for having...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ALLGOR: Yes.

MARTIN: But briefly, I want to get our other guests. But, Catherine, I just want to ask you, of course, Michelle Obama is the first African-American first lady. And you actually think she has less running room, perhaps, than a Cindy McCain might have had because she has to be so careful. She has to stay within the lanes, as it were. Why do you think that?

Dr. ALLGOR: It's a paradox really of our culture. A conservative woman who's more traditional in style - a former beauty queen for instance, or cheerleader - has a cover under which she can do all kinds of amazing things.

But Michelle Obama is a very intelligent woman. She also learned from the example of Hillary Clinton, and she knows, as a feminist, as a liberal, and as a woman of color, people will be watching her very carefully. I have some theories about how she's going to handle that, but she knows that she's got to tread in a way that a much more traditional woman would just get away with.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Robin, you dissect style for a living. Describe Michelle Obama's style to me, and do you think that Catherine is right? Do you think she has to kind of stay in the lanes, as it were?

Ms. GIVHAN: When I talk about the fact that I think her style is in incredibly modern and to some degree quite progressive, I mean that in the context of the White House. In terms of the broader world, I think she is, you know, someone who sort of fits into the big mainstream of the way that professional working women dress.

But for a first lady, there are several things that are quite interesting, and one is that she tends to wear a lot of dresses. She doesn't wear the traditional sort of boxy suit of Washington, and she shows off her curves. So, the idea that she has a bit of sort of sassiness and sex appeal in her wardrobe really, I think, sets her apart and makes us take notice.

MARTIN: That's so interesting. I didn't notice that. You're right. Anthony, you think (unintelligible).

Mr. DICKEY: It's also a special time when we talk about fashion. This is a serious conversation because culturally, what black style in America means as far as how it holds, how it is held up to white standards and white fashion. You know, this, for me, really is a special time in how we will start to share one another's culture in a way that will become more mainstream and accepting.

And so how that translates into a Michelle Obama's style is just culturally something that we are going to - it's going to be a special time. You know, it's funny. There was a lot of strong comments about her dress on election night. And I thought the dress was as odd and fantastic as it is to see a black family in the White House and holding the highest office is as odd and fantastic as that dress was.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the dress. Example, Robin was not a fan. Particularly, she didn't like how she worked with the black cardigan, and I must say that there was an inordinate amount of discussion about this in our office.

Dr. ALLGOR: Yes, yes.

Ms. GIVHAN: You're right. I was not a huge fan of the dress with the cardigan. But that said, I mean, I was a fan of the way that the entire family was coordinated, color coordinated, and made for this really seamless, cohesive unit when they were photographed.

MARTIN: Can I ask Catherine Allgor...

Dr. ALLGOR: Yes.

MARTIN: How did you react to the dress?

Dr. ALLGOR: Well, I was very sympathetic to that dress because I saw that there was the color coordination need, which, I agree with Robin, was just wonderful and worked out photographically. So, I want to say something, though, about what Anthony was talking about, about this being sort of the African-American moment coming out here.

There's something else going on that's rather interesting, too, which is an evocation of maybe the whitest family ever, which is the Kennedys. So, she's being deliberately, I think, dressed not just as a professional African-American woman who celebrates her curves and wears dresses, as Robin is saying, but also as, you know, this echo of Camelot. You know, Robin, I think Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was the last woman we saw in stylish suits and dresses.

MARTIN: Let me read something that Robin wrote earlier this year about Michelle Obama's photographs in Vogue. They were photographed by Annie Leibovitz, the famous, of course, photographer, who's photographed, I don't know, just all kinds of prominent cultural figures, political, cultural figures, and you wrote that they seemed crafted specifically to help the viewer imagine her in the role of first lady. She has a study in little black dresses, conservative pearls, preppy hair, and restraint.

Again, the implied message is unmistakable and neither subversive nor threatening. I'm not some scary other. I am Camelot with a tan. Along those lines, Robin and others who wish to jump in, does she constantly have to keep proving that she is, as you put it, non-threatening?

Ms. GIVHAN: You know, it pains me to say this, but yes, I do think that that is something that is going to be a constant subtext. I think that, for black women, black men as well, whenever they dress for public consumption, there is always that subtext of wanting to make sure that there's no confusion about the message that they're sending.

I think the idea of appropriateness is something that figures extremely large for Michelle Obama in particular because there is this incredible excitement, and you see it both in the blogs, you see it just in casual conversations with people who are obsessed with how she looks and obsessively worried that she's going to put the wrong foot forward, that there's going to be a moment when she's caught with bad hair or her bra strap showing or a slip showing or something - some tiny little indiscretion or misstep that is going to be blown out of proportion because of who she is, because she's a first...

Mr. DICKEY: I think she said it, blown out of proportion.

MARTIN: Anthony, let's talk about hair, though. Let's talk about hair. I think that Robin is right. There seems to be just a remarkable degree of attention to everything that she does. One of your goals as a stylist is to dispel the idea that curly hair, wavy hair is something undesirable and socially unacceptable. I think this whole question of black women and how they wear their hair is fraught. You have an array of clients. I believe you have styled Michelle Obama's hair at some point.

Are there any styles that are just considered too ethnic for her to wear in her current role? For example, some African-American women wear corn rows, what some people call cane rows, on vacation to give their hair a break. I mean, are there some things you just think she just cannot wear?

Mr. DICKEY: I think that there may be some hairstyles that she can't wear. I personally kind of embrace all things hair, whether it's relaxed or natural. So, I'm sure that's a better conversation for both you, who are a little more conservative with your hair.

Dr. ALLGOR: Michel, I'll be politically incorrect about the whole thing and say, I do think that there are some styles that are off limits for her because there's still a significant portion of our culture that looks at some styles, whether it's dreadlocks or an afro, as being a statement about who you are, and it's a statement that sets you apart to some degree. I'm not saying that I necessarily agree with that.

I think that, if Michelle Obama had entered the White House as someone who wore dreadlocks or wore her hair naturally, then I think that would be fine. That would be a style that people were used to. They had made their judgments about the family, taking that into consideration as a part of who she is and how she presents herself. But I think, once they've made that decision, you can't keep changing your image and changing the perception of how people see you.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with fashion editor Robin Givhan, celebrity stylist Anthony Dickey, Professor Catherine Allgor about the incoming first lady, Michelle Obama's, style and the style challenges of being the first African-American first lady.

You remember Richard Nixon in his famous checker speech saying that, my wife does not have a fur coat. She has respectable Republican cloth coat. And whereas Jackie Kennedy's high style was considered an asset. And then, of course, there was Nancy Reagan, who straddled that line between, on the one hand, the fashion industry appreciated her interest in fashion, but sometimes became a political flash point. Now, this came up recently, when Michelle Obama was on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." I'm just going to play a short clip of that conversation.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"): Now, I want to ask you about your wardrobe. I'm guessing about 60 grand?

Mrs. MICHELLE OBAMA (Future First Lady): Yep.

Mr. LENO: 60, 70 thousand for that outfit?

Mrs. OBAMA: Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble.

Mr. LENO: Really?

Mrs. OBAMA: You can get some good stuff online?

Mr. LENO: So you order online?

Mrs. OBAMA: Well, yeah.

Mr. LENO: Doesn't take the fun out of it? Isn't it fun to go to the store?

Mrs. OBAMA: When you don't have time, you got to click. You got to click and click on.

MARTIN: Well, of course, the context was this whole discussion runs with Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin and this wardrobe, what was spent on her wardrobe and blah blah blah. But, Robin, I wanted to ask you about the line - she got applause for J. Crew. I wasn't sure whether it was because this is a very Democratic crowd and they just were making a point, or was it because people were saying, yes, I feel you. I have to shop online, too, at two in the morning when my kids are asleep.

But on the one hand, the industry would appreciate, wouldn't they, a first lady who champions particularly the American fashion industry. On the other hand, there are the people like - I don't know, me, I'll just say it, who can't afford that stuff. So, Robin, how does one straddle that?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, first, I think it has to seem like it's authentic to your audience. But I think there's a difference between the way that a candidate's wife dresses and the way she talks about clothes and what's expected of her versus a first lady. It seems to me that the American public wants the candidate's wife to be relatable. They want to feel like she understands what it means for them to go shopping, that she shops in the same places where they do, that she can put together a fantastic wardrobe for a couple of hundred dollars per ensemble. But I think that sensibility changes when she becomes the first lady. And at the point, they want someone who represents the bests of American style.

MARTIN: Catherine?

Dr. ALLGOR: I think Robin is absolutely correct that we do have a different expectation of a presidential wife, and we have expectations also shaped by things like makeover shows and reality TV, and so we do have a toleration maybe more for designer clothes than we did, say, in the 1980s.

And I think it's as simple as, when she's at a California Pizza Kitchen on Connecticut Avenue in her J. Crew mixes, we'll love that. But we'll understand that, on ceremonial occasions, if she comes out in an American-designed outfit and then do something like Princess Diana did, which is give some of those dresses to charity or to sell them. I think there'll be no problem with the whole idea of the economic downturn.

MARTIN: And finally, I just want to play one more clip. And, Kevin, you've talked to us about the politics of fashion and the fact that the first ladies can make important statements with their clothing and the way they present themselves in sort of political and cultural statements. So I want to play a short clip from a conversation that she had on "The View."

(Soundbite of TV show "The View")

Mrs. OBAMA: I stopped wearing pantyhose a long time go because it was painful, and they'd always rip. And I'm five-eleven, so I'm tall. So nothing really fit. You put them on. You rip them. Just, it's inconvenient.

MARTIN: Can I ask, what do we think about this? Is this like sort of the gauntlet that the modern woman has to go through, is talking about their pantyhose? This is a woman who went to Princeton and Harvard Law School and has a high-level executive position. Robin?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, it's just a matter of sort of fashion symbolism. I do think that the entire pantyhose issue is this kind of fraught conversation that professional women have that really gets back to women sort of not being in control in the workplace. Why do I have to wear something, wear this kind of uniform in order to prove that I'm a professional, intelligent, capable person? What does it matter what I have on my legs?

MARTIN: In a way, she's tapping into the zeitgeist, something real and truthful, a conversation women are really having. This is always an unfair question, but I'm going to ask, which is, four years from now, do you think we would still be having this conversation about Michelle Obama's style and her hair and so forth? What do you think? Catherine, do you want to start?

Dr. ALLGOR: The first lady has always been a figure that we've cast our anxieties and our fears about women and power and gender and race. And so we may be doing this in four years, especially if she makes some kind of style change.

MARTIN: Anthony?

Mr. DICKEY: I think we're absolutely going to be talking about it four years later because I think she's got a personal sense of style, and she's got a sense of a way to dress, and I think she's got it.

MARTIN: Robin?

Ms. GIVHAN: I think it really depends. I think that, at the moment, she is pure symbolism for us, and as such, we are obsessed with how she looks and every detail of her appearance. But I think that, once she settles in, and we're given something else to focus on, I think the attention will shift. But I do hope that she continues to dress in a way that really reflects our modern culture as opposed to the freeze-dried culture of Washington.

MARTIN: Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan and celebrity hairstylist Anthony Dickey joined us from our studios in New York. Catherine Allgor is a visiting professor of American history at Claremont McKenna College in California. She joined us from KSPC in Pomona. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DICKEY: Thank you.

Dr. ALLGOR: Thank you.

Ms. GIVHAN: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: And if you'd like to see some examples of Michelle Obama's fashion choices, please go our website at the Tell Me More page of And while you're there, why don't you weigh in on the election-night dress? Love it or hate it? Let us know.

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