Michelle Obama’s impact on fashion

Marketplace Staff Feb 8, 2011

Michelle Obama’s impact on fashion

Marketplace Staff Feb 8, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: When Michelle Obama makes the media circuit tomorrow — to mark the first anniversary of her campaign against childhood obesity — there will be stories about that issue, of course. But also some commentary on what she’s wearing. Our first lady’s sense of style has been noteworthy for as long as there have been first ladies. In her new book, “Everyday Icon,” fashion writer Kate Betts says that’s especially true for Michelle Obama.

Kate Betts: She wears a lot of flats. She wears a lot of pants with blouses and belted cardigans over them. She wears these very sort of feminine and fun floral printed dresses.

Ryssdal: Or as you say, you call it “approachable” at one point in this book. And I’m going to quote a friend of yours, you got an exchange from her at one point. Mrs. Obama had been seen in a sort of informal dress or something, and this friend of yours wrote to you and said, “You know what, I don’t want my first ladies to be approachable.”

Betts: Well, that’s interesting because the first lady has such an historic place, obviously, in this country. And I was talking with a great historian who has written about Dolley Madison, Catherine Allgor, and she said we want our first lady to look good, but not too good because some people do like the pomp and circumstance and the sort of formality that comes with that kind of position. But I think that a lot of women today can relate more easily to somebody like Michelle Obama as a casual, very everyday icon.

Ryssdal: Do you see that being reflected in fashion trends and in style trends?

Betts: Oh absolutely. Her use of color, the way she wears such beautiful colors so easily. Designers for spring have completely embraced that idea and you see color all over the runways. The flat shoes. We’re seeing shoe height, heel heights go down for the first time in several seasons. And so I think that designers definitely take note. I mean, as Narciso Rodriguez says to me in the book…

Ryssdal: Remind us all, especially me, who Narciso Rodriguez is.

Betts: Narciso Rodriguez is a designer and he has dressed Michelle Obama on several occasions. And he said, such a huge force in fashion ultimately becomes fashion, and I think that’s true.

Ryssdal: There are those that will listen to this interview and hear that it’s about style and fashion and clothes and kind of dismiss it as not substantive.

Betts: For some reason in this country there is this notion that style and substance should occupy two separate planets, really. And I think that actually Michelle Obama is proof — living proof — that you can be stylish and substantive and you don’t have to make excuses for one or the other.

Ryssdal: There is the Nancy Reagan problem, too. She wore a lot of high-end gowns, was really criticized for it at a time when the economy was kind of in the tank in the early Reagan administration. There’s that little bit that Michelle Obama, I would imagine, has to defend against a little bit.

Betts: Yes. And she has been, from the early days of the campaign, very clever about wearing brands like J. Crew and Target and H&M and the Gap. One of my favorite moments was when she wore a Gap sweater that I don’t think could have cost more than $49 to lunch with Nancy Reagan.

Ryssdal: You touch on this a little bit kind of at the end of the book, but I want to get your thoughts on how important it is for the world of style and fashion that Michelle Obama is African-American?

Betts: I think it’s incredibly important. I think that’s what makes her iconic is that she is the first African-American first lady. I think that’s why people are really looking to her to see what she does, to see how she carries herself and how she handles the whole style part of the equation of the first lady position. She’s incredibly influential, particularly, to African-American women. Young women, they see her as maybe the first style icon they’ve ever known.

Ryssdal: Kate Betts. Her book about Michelle Obama is called “Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.” Kate, thanks a lot.

Betts: Thank you.

Ryssdal: There are pictures and a lot more First Lady fashion factoids. Check it out.

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