In the wake of the recent kerfluffle (August 2017) over Melania Trump’s footwear choice when she and The Donald traveled to the area devastated by Hurricane Harvey, I’ve been thinking again about the role of the U.S. First Lady (whoever she may be). With those thoughts in mind, I’ve revisited and slightly revised an article I wrote a few years ago about Michelle Obama. In another post (coming shortly), I’ll say more about why First Ladyhood is such a peculiarly American institution.
Having written and spoken often of my annoyance at the enormous amount of attention paid to the hair styles and dress of female candidates and other women prominent in public life, I can’t believe that I am admitting this in print: I have been known, on many an occasion and of my own free will, to read about Michelle Obama’s clothing choices.
There. I feel better now.
Lest you’re wondering whether this fascination with fashion means that I’ve gone over to the Dark Side, leaving behind my decades-long principled stand against the trivialization of women’s accomplishments, I can assure you: Not hardly.
Rather, I was so relieved to have a White House whose denizens relished complexity and nuance and whose moral compasses contained direction points that I recognize, that I found myself eagerly reading about everything from the momentous to the quotidian.
In other words: I became a Fan. Negotiations with Mexico? Organic gardening? Monetary policy? Sweater sets? If it was happening at or emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I wanted to read about it, so thrilled was I to have adults running the country.
That said: I have no intention of discarding my critical faculties. The First Lady role is a most peculiar one, about which the U.S. public has been ambivalent since the Republic’s founding. The position has no Constitutional basis, no legal definition, and no direct public accountability. While the candidate’s wife has been allowed in the limelight during the campaign, she’s also been expected to occupy that back seat — except for certain public rituals — should her man achieve office. First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton paid the price of being the exceptions that proved the rule, including excoriation in the press for their refusal to follow the script.
Enter Michelle Robinson Obama, with a degree in sociology from Princeton, a law degree from Harvard, and her American story. Like many wives of nationally prominent politicians — even before taking up residence in the White House — she had already become part of popular culture: Listed in 2006 by Essence as among “the world’s 25 most inspiring women” and in 2007 by Vanity Fair among “the ten world’s best-dressed people,” she was also an honorary guest at Oprah Winfrey’s 2005 “Legends Ball” which invited a younger generation of African American women to join Oprah in honoring an older generation of trailblazers such as Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Katherine Dunham, Nikki Giovanni, Dorothy Height, Lena Horne, Coretta Scott King, Toni Morrison, Cicely Tyson and Alice Walker.
And still, we wanted to know what she was wearing. “The Obamas are in town this week and all eyes are on the fashion choices of First Lady Michelle,” noted the British web site uk.msn of the First Couple’s first visit to the United Kingdom. Max Mutchnick, co-creator of the television series Will and Grace, opined that at least one of Michelle’s outfits might have signified that the Obamas might have needed a few more gay people around them. “If more homosexuals were in the Obamas’ lives,” he said, “there is no way that Michelle would have worn a twin set when she met the Queen.”
Of course, I still find myself irritated by the degree to which this kind of sartorial scrutiny is so heavily gendered, and by the extent to which we focus on hair, clothing and grooming as a way of managing our anxieties about powerful women in public life.
But the freedom for women to use clothing as a means of self-expression is also not to be taken lightly, given centuries of restrictions on women’s bodies — particularly the bodies of women of color. A First Lady whose entire bearing says “Here I am!” and who by all appearances is living comfortably in her own body (and who is not afraid to laugh, dance, and rock a sweater set) is a compelling symbol of female agency. Even as she was being made into a fashion icon, Michelle Obama was subverting the status quo, thus pulling off the neatest trick of all. Fan club, anyone?
© Rhea Hirshman 2017