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A Fashionable Promise
By Mimi Hecht
Michelle Obama’s inauguration gown on display at the Smithsonian.

This week, Michelle Obama’s inauguration gown joined twelve other dresses worn by First Ladies on inauguration day as part of the “First Ladies at the Smithsonian” exhibition at the National Museum of American History.  The dress joins the ranks of other First Ladies’ gowns including those of Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt and even Mary Todd Lincoln. 


In her remarks at the event, which unveiled her dress behind a glass case, the First Lady acknowledged the meaning in displaying her dress at the Museum.  

“I truly recognize the significance of this day,” she said, “This gown helps us connect with a moment in history in a very real way.”

But what the First Lady may not realize is that her inauguration attire does more than remind us of a significant American moment. Visitors – both historians and fashion divas – that now come to marvel at Mrs. Obama’s gown are seeing more than the material worn by the wife of America’s first African American president. They are looking into the foundation and future of our current presidency, the changing wind of an era and the tedious threads of a true mission - not fashion - statement. 

The First Lady’s choice of designer in itself reveals themes of our President’s campaign. The gown’s designer, twenty six year old Jason Wu, speaks to the Obamas’ celebration of youth. But furthermore, the Taiwanese-American’s life story speaks to the “right to opportunity” which the President made a staple of his campaign. Wu grew up in Taiwan and discovered his talent for design at the mere age of five. His parents, eager to give their child every opportunity, would bring him to store windows to sketch bridal dresses. He moved to America determined to become a successful designer. At the young age of 22, he opened his own shop with money he saved while designing doll clothing.  In the First Lady’s word’s, Wu is “living the American Dream.”  He is everything the President spoke about while campaigning: that every American – regardless of age, religion or background – should have access to every opportunity for success. Michelle Obama’s delicate choosing of a designer that would be a mascot for their promises is the epitome of smart style. 

The gown’s design sparked a debate about whether the look was too cutting-edge for a First Lady, but the style says much more about her mindset than it does about the level of her conservativeness. The bold asymmetric cut alludes to Michelle Obama’s conviction that the First Lady should have a voice just as “loud” as the president himself. The crossover strap says everything the First Lady wanted us to expect from her: confidence, modernity and youthfulness. Furthermore, through her offbeat look, Mrs. Obama reveals one of her mentors. On a few occasions, the First Lady has sought advice from Nancy Reagan, the only other First Lady to wear a similar one-shoulder design on inauguration day. 


The Obamas’ overarching mission was also reflected in the gown’s color; a clean and sparkling white unlike the beiges and crimsons worn by former First Ladies. The color – or lack thereof - points to the clean slate with which the President wished to begin his presidency. The Obamas’ spoke over and over again how they wanted no smear of past presidents, no hint of “politics as usual.” When the First Lady appeared in white on inauguration day, her gown reflected a nation’s hope for change, their desire to abandon the past and start anew. 

Whether to her merit or not, Mrs. Obama’s dress was nothing like a President’s wife has ever worn. Unlike the more rigid, conservative and safe garb of former First Ladies, it was more romantic than stately, with flowing silk chiffon adorned with Swarovski crystals. It more so resembled something a star would wear to the Oscars. And in many ways, the Obamas are the first White House family to have turned themselves into presidential celebrities. Once again, the dress fits. 

“I’m not used to people wanting to put things I've worn on display,” said Mrs. Obama, drawing laughter from the small audience. “I have to say that I'm also a little embarrassed by all the fuss being made over my dress.” 

But with the details - from designer to cut to color – so purposely weaved, it’s really no wonder. The First Lady’s gown belongs in the Smithsonian because for the first time, a dress is making more than a fashion statement. Simply put, her apparel on inauguration night said this: the times, they are a-changin’. The real question remains, though: Will the dress be a reflection of an era or will it simply sit behind a glass as a reminder of a fashionable promise? The Obamas still has some time to see if the gown – and everything its chiffon flows for – truly fits. 



Posted on March 17, 2010
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