Time Helps Declare Michelle Obama One of the Most Fashionable First Ladies in History

Time magazine knows it can't be all serious, so in addition to its cover story on Egypt this week, they have a gushy piece on Michelle Obama's fashions, written by Kate Betts, author of the new book Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style. Michelle's so chic it's historic:

Given her widespread reputation as one of the most stylish women ever to inhabit the White House, you might think Michelle Obama automatically belongs in the Madison-Kennedy lineage. But her background argues differently. No one can claim that Michelle Obama doesn't know what it's like to work or that she entered marriage because she didn't get an education and lacked economic power of her own. It is plain that she has learned as much if not more from the example of Hillary Clinton as from the example of Jackie Kennedy.

What makes Obama exceptional is that she seems so at home in both camps. So at home that the whole debate about style and substance suddenly seems passé, an anachronism of the gender wars, a false dichotomy enforced by narrow-minded men and women at war with themselves. That Michelle Obama does not see style and substance as an either-or choice is a powerful statement that the underlying assumptions about women's roles and images have changed. Embodying the confluence of substance and style, she has helped reconcile the long-standing antagonism between them. She has, in some sense, made them one and the same.

On Monday's Today, Meredith Vieira brought on Betts to talk up Michelle Obama, "everyday icon" of fashion. This sounds a lot like the Off-the-Rack Genius hype of 2008:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Why is she, as you call her, an everyday icon of style?

KATE BETTS: Well, she's iconic because she's the first African-American first lady, but she's also very accessible in her style. Her style's very casual, much more so than Jackie, for example. And so...

VIEIRA: Well, so much of her stuff is right off the rack.

BETTS: Right. It's right off the rack and it's off a rack at Talbots or J.Crew or at a store at a mall where anybody can really access it. So that makes it very everyday.

VIEIRA: How has she evolved from when she was on the campaign trail? And to be honest with you, I don't even remember that she used to wear suits, but she did, it was a suit jacket. And now she's much more of a cardigan lady.

BETTS: Yes. She basically changed her image from sort of the corporate board room pinstripe suit to the cardigan and floral print dress mom in chief. She went from sort of the working mom to the mom in chief.

VIEIRA: It's been said that the first lady sets the emotional tone for an administration. If that is true, what tone is she setting with her fashions?

BETTS: Well, she's setting a very casual and accessible tone. She's, you know, throwing off her shoes on the South Lawn and running across barefoot. She's--you know, she's like you and me. She has two kids. She's, you know, juggling all these things that working moms juggle and she's also wearing the clothes that working moms wear.

VIEIRA: But even the stuff that comes from--of the runway she adapts it to be her. You know, she makes it her own really.

BETTS: Yeah. She knows what looks good on her and she wears what she likes and she says that all the time. And that's really her fashion motto. And she knows how to kind of adapt things to fit her body to make her feel comfortable.

Kate Betts is so pro-Michelle she wouldn't allow a glimmer of negativity damage the beautiful, casual picture she was painting. Meredith Vieira mentioned her fashion "mistakes," and like an administration publicist, Betts wouldn't even contemplate the possibility:

VIEIRA: Yet she's made some fashion mistakes, according to some people. The bare legs on Air Force One and then--showing her legs, actually--and then recently she wore a British designer at that dinner for the president of China. Big mistakes in your view?

Ms. BETTS: You know, I don't think those are mistakes. I think the British designer was something that she did because she wears what she loves and she really telegraphs this message of self-possession and confidence. And to me that's what defines American style.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis