Farewell to Michelle Obama - the First Lady of fashion
As she prepares to depart to the White House this month, our reporter examines how through heartfelt speeches, inspirational campaigns, and even stylish dressing, Mrs Obama transformed the role of First Lady - and won over the world
Published 06/11/2016 | 02:30
It took fewer than 15 minutes. On a warm night in Philadelphia last July, the First Lady of the United States, smiling, took to a stage in front of an audience of 5,000 people. She was studied on live television by 28 million more.
Those present roared their support and energetically waved sticks bearing her name. A dense swarm of veneration, white on purple, wherever the eye landed: MICHELLE.
The speech Michelle Obama delivered at the Democratic National Convention that evening stopped a caught-up, careening America dead in its tracks. It was short, but lacked nothing; crystal clear, while laden down with emotion and with hope. Obama, her gesticulation all her own, her face serious, wavered just once.
It is an unsteadiness that can only be paid attention to on a second listen, or a third. The words she delivered in the 11th minute, as demanding, solemn, and significant as they were, as directly from the heart as they derived, have the effect of practically eclipsing her delivery.
She reflected on the people who knew "lash of bondage", "shame of servitude" and "sting of segregation", "but who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done, so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters, and all our sons and daughters, now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States."
The cameras swept across the auditorium, catching several people in tears. "We cannot afford to be tired, or frustrated, or cynical," Obama said, moments later. A spirited cheer went up in reply. "No, hear me," she stressed, before continuing, bold and unequivocal. They heard.
The enthusiasm for Obama has tended to be so great in America, her position (of her own making) so singular, and her appeal so broad, that she has recast expectations of the office of the First Lady. The role and its responsibilities have been gradually formalising for decades, but no officeholder has taken custody of it like Obama has, nor realised so much of its latent potential.
To understand the unique point she occupies on the map of US political and public life, one need look no further than at the speaking record of Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. A man whose insults have been so regular and plentiful as to provide the New York Times with two full pages - some 6,000 - in newsprint last month, a man for whom little, if anything, is off limits, has not once publicly spoken ill of Michelle Obama.
In the twilight of two four-year terms in office, the instrumentality of Michelle Obama to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has been a central feature of the US election. On that convention speech, New York Magazine writer-at-large Rebecca Traister observed: "It was not just one of the best and most ingenious speeches ever given by a political spouse at a party convention, it was one of the finest speeches I have heard at a convention."
The speech, a showstopper at the time, was really merely mood music for what followed. Since, Obama has surpassed herself many times over. At a rally in North Carolina at the beginning of October, dressed in deep watercolour florals, she spoke with even greater urgency.
"When she [Clinton] gets knocked down, she doesn't complain. She doesn't cry 'foul'," Obama rapidly tapped her microphone with the tips of her fingers. There was an insouciance to the motion, a perfect, wordless roasting of the opponent who petulantly found fault with his microphone after the first presidential debate. It was over almost before it began.
To a familiar roar of appreciation from the crowd, Obama did not react.
In the swing state of New Hampshire, she took the Republican candidate apart with more exacting precision than ever before. New York's Traister duly updated her rankings. "Michelle Obama Just Gave This Election's Most Important Speech", her October 13 piece was headlined.
After the release of the 2005 clip in which Donald Trump talks about doing whatever he wants to women because he is "a star", Obama expressed her horror in her own words. She dealt in senses, feelings, and fears. She spoke in terms of shame and basic human decency. "I know this is a campaign, but this isn't about politics," she said. It was a speech Hillary Clinton could not have delivered, Traister wrote, a) because of her own husband, b) because "it remains damn near impossible for a woman to make inspiring feminist arguments on her own behalf without coming off as self-congratulatory", and c) because Clinton is just not as skilled at "communion, empathy, and inspiration".
Indeed, these are the skills that drive Obama higher in public esteem than other First Ladies or opposite numbers the world over who have also been bright, beaming, and nicely turned out. People crave personality and will attempt to eke it out of anything. Samantha Cameron's dolphin tattoo. Kate Middleton's choice of dress. Carla Bruni's biannual one-liners.
The aforementioned skills set Michelle Obama apart from a band of women that have tended to venture as far as mega presentability and tacit agreement with a spouse, but not much further. They place her in the same category as Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Chisolm, or in Ireland, as women like Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Their commitment to their visions and their belief systems is unusual and valued, if not clung to, for that. All are likely to leave enduring legacies.
Asked to share her sense of Obama's legacy and the shape it might assume from 2017, Traister said that "through an optimistic lens", she expects Obama's example to be crucial in the future. "As we head into the next four years of what I assume will include terrible backlash, racist and sexist, I think that her 'When they go low, we go high' line will arm a lot of people," she said. "I expect attacks on Hillary Clinton, retroactively on the Obamas, and on supporters of both - as well as continued pushback against the progress made by women and people of colour - will only intensify."
In the image she is lean and lithe, as now. Her long legs, crossed at the ankle, kick out in front of her. She is wearing leggings with a tidy pair of loafers, her hands rest on her husband's crossed knees, and everything about her is soft and at ease.
The Obamas were a young couple photographed as part of an art project in 1996. The picture with a short interview was published by The New Yorker in 2009.
"There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it's unclear," Obama, then 32, told photographer Mariana Cook. "There is a little tension with that. I'm very wary of politics. I think he's too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the scepticism." A double Ivy League graduate - first from Princeton and later from Harvard Law School - Obama began her career at Sidley & Austin, a corporate law firm in her native Chicago.
It was at Sidley & Austin where she met Barack, a plucky summer associate who now says he won his wife over by buying her ice cream on the way back from a company picnic. On the occasion of a 2004 encounter with director Spike Lee, per a forensic 2008 New Yorker profile of Michelle Obama, Barack thanked him for making Do The Right Thing - during an early cinema date, she had allowed him to put his hand on her knee.
After three years, Michelle Obama left corporate law and worked as an assistant to the then-mayor, later becoming the founding director of an organisation dedicated to preparing young people for public service, and, later, dean of students at the University of Chicago. Finally, before the 2008 term, Obama became the director of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center. She tells of bringing her infant daughter to the interview.
Obama's resumé, as telling and impressive as it may be of itself, is best considered with an understanding of her upbringing. In January 1964, in a working-class neighbourhood on Chicago's South Side, she was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. The Robinsons, four of them, lived in a four-room bungalow apartment rented from a relation. Obama's only sibling, her older brother Craig, told a biographer a number of years ago that if he was describing it to an estate agent he would have said "1BR, 1 BA". "If you said it was eleven hundred square feet," he is quoted as having said, "I'd call you a liar."
Marian Robinson looked after Obama and Craig while their father, Fraser, worked a "swing shift", from noon until late, at a water filtration plant in the city. Fraser Robinson developed multiple sclerosis while he was a young man, and Obama has described watching him leave for work on two walking sticks. Nevertheless, they routinely played sports and games together. In later years, they settled into Scrabble.
Her father, with whom she was close, died in 1991. In 2008, a New York Daily News report included an anecdote of Craig's about college applications. He was offered a full scholarship to the University of Washington, and a partial scholarship to Princeton.
"It might as well have been a million dollars," he told the paper, of the $3,500 required by Princeton. Upon explaining to his father he wanted to go to Washington because the family wouldn't have to pay anything, Fraser Robinson told Craig that if he chose based on cost, he would be disappointed. His son went to Princeton, and his daughter followed.
Michelle Obama's oratorical prowess is not at all new. To replay older speeches is to be stirred by their biting honesty, and the persistent ambition they illustrate.
Obama, as a speaker, is not "polished beyond all measure" like her husband, and that, too, allows her connect with audiences, according to Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor at the department of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"It is amazing to watch a black woman talk about being vulnerable in this way on this kind of stage," McMillan Cottom tweeted last week in response to Obama's words in New Hampshire. "'Enough is enough', delivered perfectly. All the more remarkable for how frequently she stutters a bit."
In 2007, described by CNBC as "no shrinking violet", Obama said in an interview: "We [the black community] see snippets of our community and distortions of our community [in the media]. The world has this perspective that somehow Barack and Michelle Obama are different, that we're unique. And we're not. You just haven't seen us before."
According to Peter Slevin, author of a biography of Obama which was published last year, she had what amounted to a "rough start" in early 2008. Determined to convey her own message in support of the run for the presidency, Slevin says, Obama fixated on "unstacking the deck. Questions of inequity, inequality, race, class, and gender were routinely raised, says Slevin, explaining that Obama subscribed to a familiar statement of 19th century African-American statesmen Frederick Douglass: "Power conceded nothing without a demand".
At the beginning of 2008, Obama's overt zeal in this regard led her to say that, in light of progress made by her husband, whose following was steadily increasing, "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country".
Faced with a remark that was interpreted as challenged patriotism, her opponents lost their cool. "The criticism in response really stung her," Slevin says. "A lack of pride was not what she wanted to convey."
But by Slevin's telling, Obama "unveiled" a new version of herself at the Democratic National Convention later that year. "Her numbers shot up that night, favourable, and they have never come down," he says.
It could be argued she has regained some of her old ground, now. Obama told graduates of Tuskegee University in Alabama in commencement address last year: "The world won't always see you in those caps and gowns. Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world.
"My husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We've both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives - the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the 'help' - and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country."
Lauren Collins, the author of the 2008 New Yorker profile, included in it a magnificent line from Obama's mother, who said: "Michelle's always been very vocal about anything. If it's not right, she's going to say so. When she was at Princeton, her brother called me and said, 'Mom, Michelle's here telling people they're not teaching French right.' She thought the style was not conversational enough. I told him: 'Just pretend you don't know her.'"
Reflecting on Obama's tenure now, Collins says she did not think there was any contradiction between her aloofness from politics, "in its sense as transactional business", and her soaring popularity with voters. "Her distaste for the process is part of what endears her to them, demonstrating that she's a normal person with normal-person concerns," she says. "This is the winning paradox of Michelle Obama: she's political, but she's not a politician."
Michelle Obama is now 52 to Barack's 55. The couple's particular cachet, their own blend of cool, departs the White House intact, if not sharpened and shined. The Obamas carry with them a trove of cultural trappings and riches, from knick-knack to jewel. Obama wore an Atelier Versace ballgown to her final state dinner as First Lady last week, essentially stopping traffic online. The dress was specifically designed for her by Donnatella Versace, who said: "I am humbled and honoured to have the opportunity to dress the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Thank you Michelle for all the things you did for America and for the rest of the world, for the women in the US and the rest of the world."
Earlier in October, she appeared luminescent on front covers of the 'Greats' issue of T, the New York Times' style magazine. It contained a collection of thank-yous entitled "To the First Lady, With Love". The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in an exquisite note that thoroughly takes in all eight years, calls Obama an American style icon, writing: "No public figure better embodies that mantra of full female selfhood: Wear what you like."
But the Obamas' distinctive, arresting personal style finds all manner of outlet. Think of the jazzy chords of Al Greene's Signed, Sealed, Delivered; in 2012, reliance on Greene's expansively comforting Let's Stay Together; their dancing in unexpected settings - last weekend bopping to Thriller with a room full of Halloween-costumed children; Spotify playlists assembled with the Bidens; two beloved Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Bo; panoramic Instagram accounts; White House reading lists; and friendships, at least of a sort, with people like Beyoncé, George Clooney, and Ellen DeGeneres.
Both Barack and Michelle have been funny, poked fun, and had fun. Of course, they can both put a joke to work. Even in the throes of appearing on Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, Obama dwelled on her stay-in-school initiative, Let Girls Learn. She has also championed exercise and healthy eating, alongside access to education for minorities and the disadvantaged. The ultimate goal of Let's Move, a programme introduced in 2010, is to eliminate childhood obesity in the US within a generation.
To this end, Obama has worked to popularise simple, clean eating, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. The White House garden has been put to work and more than once been used as a vehicle for the campaign. The third pillar of her office, Joining Forces, is dedicated to supporting military and ex-military personnel and their families, breaking down barriers to education, employment, and good mental health that have traditionally stood in the way of many.
On the subject of the future, Obama has made clear her anticipation of a time out of office, but continues to be somewhat coy. Peter Slevin says he believes Obama when she says she doesn't know what she wants to do, but suspects it will be in securing one or more of the visions she began work on while in office, but perhaps particularly in education, which she has singled out as the most pressing civil rights issue of our time.
Obama has joked about getting back her security deposit from the White House. She has said she is looking forward to driving around with the windows down, and that she wants to open her front door without discussing it with anyone, and "just walk". She has also said she is looking forward to fresh air (you cannot open a window at the White House without provoking security).
"I do want to drop into Target," she told Oprah Winfrey during a summertime summit. "I've heard so many things have changed." Oprah, pushing for more, leaned on Obama to pull her from joke-making, her fondness of throwing her head back and leavening with laughter. Whither Michelle Obama? Where next? How does it look to you?
The First Lady of the United States replied in a tone that implied she had thought about the question a lot. There was cheerful warmth to an answer that might have been different in 2008. "I won't even ask for anonymity, because I think that is forever gone," she said. "But I have learned that if you flow into a pattern of life with people, they give you space to come in."
The First Lady of fashion
From wow gowns to soccer mom staples, during her eight years at the White House Michelle Obama has been an ambassador for American fashion
From First Lady to cover girl
From the get-go, Michelle has been lauded for her championing of all-American style. She first graced the cover of Vogue — Hillary Clinton was the only other First Lady accorded that honour — in 2009. Posing for Annie Liebovitz, she wore a magenta dress by Jason Wu, who had designed the white, chiffon, one-shouldered gown she wore for the 2009 inaugural ball. In 2013, she again appeared on the cover of the fashion bible (pictured), this time in a dress by Reed Krakoff, who also dressed her for her official White House portrait.
Making a strong statement
In her husband’s second term, fashion commentators noticed a strengthening in Michelle’s style. From the streamlined Thom Browne coat dress she wore for the 2013 inauguration ceremony (above) — paired with down-to-earth J Crew shoes, naturally — to the clinging gold Versace at her final state dinner (below), she’s given a lesson in power dressing.
And the award for best dressed goes to…
Proving that she could hold her own against Hollywood’s A-listers, in 2013 Michelle stunned while presenting the Oscar for Best Picture in a live video link from the White House. Her silver sequinned gown was custom-made by Naheem Kahn.