Mrs Obama given a dressing down over her outfit choices
However, the First Lady's motto is to wear what pleases her, and not others, writes Julia Molony
You could be forgiven for thinking that Michelle Obama's fashion choices were incendiary enough to cause an international incident.
Decoding the fashion choices of a First Lady is, it turns out, a complicated business. Michelle has come under a great deal of fire for choosing to wear a flame red, British-designed Alexander McQueen sculpted dress to a state dinner with the president of China recently. Was it a snub to American designers? Or perhaps an oblique sartorial reference to communism? Were we really supposed to infer, as some commentators suggested, that through her dress, Michelle was expressing a latent sympathy for the ideological grounds behind one of the world's largest dictatorships?
This was one of the many possibilities mooted by her critics in fashion circles the day after the event, whose objections to her outfit were headline news.
Oscar de la Renta sounded the first klaxon of disapproval. He voiced his high-fashion judgment on her unilateral choice, complaining about the lack of patriotism reflected in her failure to showcase the work of an American designer. "My understanding is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade -- American products in China and Chinese products in America," he griped. "Why do you wear European clothes?"
Michelle's defence was simple and succinct. The only code, apparently that the lady herself follows when deciding on her wardrobe is that she wears what she likes to.
"Look, women, wear what you love. That's all I can say. That's my motto," she said, demonstrating the principle that without the possibility of pleasing everybody, the most sensible choice is to please oneself.
"It's nice to have on a nice suit," she went on, "but it's a lot nicer to change a generation in terms of their health . . . It's a better use of my time to focus on rallying this country around our military families. There's so much that I hope to do in this role that makes a difference in people's lives."
It was a deftly handled, elegant riposte, within which she managed to demonstrate her stalwart alliance to her husband's most contentious political cause by dropping in the 'Health' word, while also underlying her independence of mind. After all, only a doll dresses according to the whims of its audience without putting greater importance on the expression of personal taste.
Besides that, she looked undeniably breathtaking. Powerful, eye-catching, even iconic. (Despite the snarking in some fashion corners that the McQueen added bulk). Certainly, there are more important things than fashion. Michelle's implicit suggestion in her comeback was that carping over her choice of wardrobe adds up to so much hot air.
But, as she well knows, that doesn't mean that fashion is trivial. This is a woman who has her own style blog (Mrs O) and makes a conscious point of championing young designers. Her clothes may not have deserved the same prominence as, say, the crisis in Egypt, but her moxie when dressing does reveal an awful lot about the lady herself.
Which matters because the American population elected her husband partly because of the good faith he won by having such an impressive, and thoroughly modern woman at his side.
It may only be a dress, but Michelle's fashion choices demonstrate her independent mind, the power of her voice, and as such are the visual evidence of how she is re-inventing the role of First Lady. Perhaps it's her iconoclasm in this regard that has got de la Renta so exercised, since for the last 30 years he has been so much the designer of choice for the key female resident of the White House that he's practically honorary first dresser. But Michelle doesn't flinch at the idea of breaking with either precedent or protocol.
She's not a first wife in the traditionally decorous mould, who surrenders her personality and her principles to the cause of her husband's career. That Michelle wears whatever she likes, that she exercises her own judgment, undaunted by the idea of attracting criticism, may seem like a small thing. But it's part of why we buy in so completely to the idea of her as partner to the president, rather than just a supportive sidekick.
Michelle's choice of clothes -- or rather her decision to wear what she likes, and what looks good, rather than what is expected of her, is a handy shorthand for her no-nonsense indomitable spirit. And that is important because it is a central and vital part of the Obama brand.