It’s no secret that Michelle Obama has an impeccable sense of style. During her time as the First Lady of the United States, her outfits were closely analyzed and women around the world continue to look to her as a style icon.
In her memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama dives deeper into the strategy behind her style and how important it was for her to speak with her clothing, though what is often referred to as fashion diplomacy.
“My clothes, I was learning, were an extension of my voice“, she shares.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS FASHION DIPLOMACY?
Think of it as the non-verbal intersection of fashion and politics for public figures. It means that a lot of strategy must go into their physical appearance (clothing, accessories, etc.) to ensure that they don’t just present themselves in the best way possible, but also make a political statement.
“If people flipped through a magazine primarily to see the clothes I was wearing, I hoped they’d also see the military spouse standing next to me or read what I had to say about children’s health,” Michelle shares in Becoming.
First ladies normally work with a stylist to help them construct their outfits (Michelle works with stylist Meredith Koop), but through reading Becoming, we’re able to further understand why the strategy behind Michelle Obama’s appearance was especially important. As the first Black first lady, she understood that she would face extra attention and scrutiny – of course, our outfit speaks before we do.
“It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say“, she reflects. “Optics governed more or less than everything in the political world, and I factored this into every outfit.“
Her stylist Meredith echoes this sentiment in a recent New York Times interview on her experience dressing the first lady: “You have to celebrate fashion but also be aware of the message people are going to take away.”
It was eye-opening to hear that Michelle opted to pay for her First Lady wardrobe with her own money.
“I paid for all my own clothes and accessories—with the exception of some items like the couture-level gowns I wore to formal events, which were lent to me by the designers and would later be donated to the National Archives, thus adhering to White House ethics guidelines.”
In Becoming, Michelle highlights why it was critical for her to hold herself to a higher standard than previous first ladies: the pressure of being the “first” and “black”. Any error or laps in judgment would be magnified.
In her interview with ELLE, she opens up further about why a style strategy was important as a black woman: As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high-end, and I’d also be criticized if I was too casual. So I mixed it up. I’d match a Michael Kors skirt with a T-shirt from Gap. I wore something from Target one day and Diane von Furstenberg the next.
She admits that her style strategy took lots of time, thought, and money—more money than she’d ever spent on clothing before. What’s fascinating is that it actually took some time for the idea of hiring a stylist to grow on her. It was never anything she expected to do but she quickly realized it was a necessity.
Now, as she continues to build her new identity beyond the White House, her style has evolved. She often opted for dresses during her time as First Lady but now we might not see her in a dress for a long time. For her book tour (which started mid-November), she has been wearing a number of stylish pantsuits.
“SHE’S NOT THINKING DRESSES BECAUSE THEY HAVE TOO MANY ASSOCIATIONS WITH MRS. OBAMA’S TIME AS FIRST LADY. AND BECAUSE THEY MAKE HER THINK OF THE WORD “RELIC” MORE THAN THE WORDS “POWERFUL” AND “CHIC”.
Michelle Obama’s style has become a critical part of her personal brand – something she truly understands the importance of. Throughout her memoir, she makes several references to this but nothing captures it better than this: “Public judgment sweeps in to fill any void. If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”
If you haven’t read Becoming yet, I highly recommend it as it serves as an authentic masterclass on the strategy required to create both a remarkable sense of style and a personal brand.