Leadership

Michelle Obama's style as first lady was scrutinized—here's how she used it to her advantage

First Lady Michelle Obama during the Midatlantic Regional Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, January 20, 2009.
First Lady Michelle Obama during the Midatlantic Regional Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, January 20, 2009.

Michelle Obama's new memoir, "Becoming," was released on Tuesday. The book explores a range of experiences in the former first lady's life, including the difficult adjustment she had to make once she became a national public figure.

She saw firsthand how the appearance of high-profile women is often studied more carefully than their words. She would learn to use that attention to her advantage.

Obama was sometimes taken aback by the special scrutiny her clothes received. "My pearls, my belts, my cardigans … all seemed to trigger a slew of opinions and instant feedback," Obama wrote in an excerpt published on Elle.com.

At one event, she was moved to tears by girls speaking at a school in London. A reporter didn't ask what had prompted the first lady to become so emotional but instead asked who designed her dress. "It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say," wrote Obama.

Obama wrote that the focus on women's wardrobes can amount to a sort of double standard and even unfair expenses for women in visible positions. Still, she used this obsession over her wardrobe to divert attention to social issues and people she thought were important.

Like other first ladies before her, she used her spotlight to give attention to American designers, especially ones that weren't yet established. But she also used her fashion choices to give added visibility to the people she was photographed with or the platform she was trying to promote.

"If people flipped through a magazine primarily to see the clothes I was wearing, I hoped they'd also see the military spouse standing next to me or read what I had to say about children's health."

Other women in high profile positions have faced this same scrutiny. In 2015, a reporter asked Amal Clooney what she was wearing while the human rights attorney walked into court to represent Armenia in a genocide denial case. Clooney laughed and responded, "I'm wearing Ede & Ravenscroft," a reference to a maker of legal robes, one of the oldest established tailors in England.

Fellow politico Hillary Clinton also faced intense scrutiny over her appearance and has said she wore her signature pantsuits in an attempt to control the conversation about her. "Since there wasn't much to say or report on what I wore, maybe people would focus on what I was saying instead," the Democratic presidential nominee wrote in her memoir "What Happened."

To be sure, Obama served as first lady, where optics are paramount. Obama wrote that her staff spent hours ensuring that the designers, colors and styles chosen for any trip paid the proper respects to the people and places she visited.

Still, the focus on her style choices could sometimes be disappointing, she wrote. That said, it pushed her to find new ways to find power in her situation as a public figure, a role she said she would not have chosen for herself.

Wrote Obama, "I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn."

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