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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Inauguration Day, the eyes of the world will be on Barack Obama, but when the sun goes down, that gaze will shift to Michelle. What the new first lady wears to the myriad balls will be parsed, praised, maybe even pilloried, a dress so significant it might one day be displayed at the Smithsonian. With us to talk about the special gown and more is fashion writer Simon Doonan. He's the author of "Eccentric Glamour" and the creative director of Barneys New York. Good morning.

Mr. SIMON DOONAN (Author, Eccentric Glamour; Creative Director, Barneys New York): How are you?

MONTAGNE: Pretty good. Thank you very much. So, inaugural balls. Michelle Obama faces many fashion challenges here, in a way. First, she has to look stunning but also appropriate. What does a first lady need to wear to the ball in a recession in the winter?

Mr. DOONAN: Well I have to tell you that I've become sort of increasingly uncomfortable with this hysteria about what she's going to wear and how she looks. But there's a tremendous amount of talk about what she will or won't wear because everyone in fashion can see she has that great physicality, that she can wear the most conservative, appropriate clothes, and she's always going to give them this extra sizzle, which, in actual fact, she's not wearing anything which is intrinsically different than what Laura Bush might wear. She just happens to have that magical physicality that Jackie O had. You're talking about a woman who is tall, athletic, amazing posture; you know, that's a great sort of blank canvas for any designer to work with if they're going to give a public servant an iconic look.

MONTAGNE: It's all over the Web, though, sketches for what Michelle Obama could wear, you know, offered by designers. It's kind of a fun game, in a way, to say, now, that would look great. Do you - what do you think?

Mr. DOONAN: Well, as somebody who's in the fashion world, for the last six months, I've been looking at those sketches. Every time I open Women's Wear Daily, there's another slew of sketches about what she would, could, might, ought to wear. And it is fun to play paper dolls and you know, think about what would look good on her. Basically, when you're a public servant, you have to dress in an appropriate way. I remember years ago, I interviewed Hardy Amies, who designed for the Queen of England. He gave the Queen of England her iconic look, that sort of frumpy dress with the matching coat and the hat and the purse.

And I said to him, how did you come up with this iconic look for the queen which, was for many years criticized, how she could look chicer if she let Parisian designers designed her and blah, blah, blah. So, Hardy Amies looked at me through his glasses with great withering contempt and he said, young man, the Queen of England must always appear to be friendly and appealing. And if she were to look chic, she would become unfriendly and unappealing, because there is an unkindness to chic. But what I would wear if I was Michelle Obama is something very, very simple. Once you start adding couture, ruffles and fooffles(ph) and bows, you could get into trouble.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, that - although everything you've just said goes to, maybe, how excited and happy people were when Michelle Obama showed up on television and was asked what she was wearing, and it turned out to be J.Crew. Much was made of it because it was so accessible.

Mr. DOONAN: I think one always wants to think that she's a populist; she's shopping where rest of us shop, et cetera, et cetera. But I feel that, you know, you want her to be known for something else - education, mental health, I don't know what else - but she has to be known for something other than looking great in a shift dress, because she's obviously an incredibly accomplished woman with a broad frame of reference, broad interests. You know, that's my Michelle Obama. It's not somebody with her head in a fashion magazine.

MONTAGNE: Simon Doonan is creative director for Barneys New York and writes a style column for the New York Observer called "Simon Says." Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. DOONAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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