Who made Michelle Obama's dresses?
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, right, stands with, from left, his wife Sarah Brown, U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. first lady Michelle Obama on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, in London, Wednesday, April 1, 2009. (Alastair Grant / AP photo / April 1, 2009)
Worn to Buckingham Palace on the Obamas' first overseas visit since occupying the White House, her Toledo dress with full skirt and tulle underlay earned plaudits precisely for its understatement. For her first meeting with Queen Elizabeth, she topped the sleeveless dress with a black cardigan and a Jason Wu duchess-satin opera coat on the way in.
For dinner later, the cardigan came off—no international incident. (Kennedy and the queen wore sleeveless gowns with gloves for their dinner in 1961.) Nor would it have been scandalous for the Obamas' informal meeting with the queen, for that matter.
"There really aren't the same conservative old rules now," British-born Avril Graham, executive fashion and beauty editor at Harper's Bazaar, said.
Earlier in the day, at 10 Downing St., Obama exuded youthful cheer in a J.Crew sparkling beaded cardigan and skirt in icy-mint dotted jacquard that subliminally reinforced the administration's message of "America's forward-thinking dynamism."
The quoted words, it must be said, are borrowed from an account of one of the other first ladies' visits to London—in 1961, as written in "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years."
But the consensus among Obama fashion pundits is that the kitten-heeled shoe fits.
Drawing parallels, however, is not the same as equating. Obama already has established her individuality through her fashion choices, but with a self-assurance and far-reaching influence similar to her predecessors'.
Kennedy occasionally wore acid yellow, notably in Pakistan where sun-drenched colors reign. But what dignitary besides Obama has successfully adopted the treacherous shade as a signature, including in the Wu chartreuse silk crepe short-sleeve sheath she wore upon arrival Tuesday in England for the G-20 summit?
Pearls are part of the job description of just about every first wife. But on Tuesday, Obama paired hers with another of her signature accessories, a brooch, on the Thakoon ivory tweed grosgrain-trimmed coat she wore before her costume change aboard Air Force One. Some have said Coco Chanel—who advised "before you leave the house, remove one thing"—would frown on this as excess. On the contrary, Graham says that Chanel pioneered the wearing of costume jewelry in just this sort of fun, creative way.
In a stroke of designer diplomacy last year at Buckingham Palace, Bruni-Sarkozy wore dignified Dior—an established French label headed by a Brit, John Galliano. Advancing her own domestic causes at Buckingham Palace, Obama chose the Taiwan-born Wu and Cuban-born Toledo, designers who embody both the entrepreneurial and multicultural spirit of America. The J.Crew ensemble showed her support of more affordable American fashion and the masses who wear it.
Like Princess Diana, Obama has become a fashion superstar in a realm not known for trend setting, though it's worth noting this:
"The queen is also regarded as a bit of a fashion icon herself, someone who's kept her style conservative but elegant," Graham said, which may be one reason Obama chose black for their introduction, to let the queen's pink stand out, in deference.
The younger Princess Diana, like Obama now, broke the mold and had a sense of humor about her choices. "She defined the glamor of that era," Graham said.
Obama's on the same track, epitomizing the high-low stylishness that many women aspire to right now.
For the real showcase showdown in fashion this week, check in Saturday, when the French and American first ladies visit Strasbourg Cathedral in France. Bruni-Sarkozy didn't go to London, so Saturday offers the first glimpse of the two fashion darlings together.
Will one outshine the other, in the way that both tend to upstage their husbands at public appearances (as did Kennedy and Diana)?
Former supermodel Bruni-Sarkozy can be expected to look stunning in just about anything. But if only one contemporary first lady can win a fashion-revolutionary war, we're siding with Michelle Obama.