Inaugural Wardrobe: Beyond the Clothes

The real news about Michelle Obama's fashion choices for the Inauguration is not necessarily in the details but in the larger picture.

As of yesterday, there is a very good case to be made that, amid the rumors about whether Anna Wintour, the uber poweful editrix of Vogue magazine is about to be replaced, America's new First Lady is now the de facto most important and powerful champion of American fashion.

Only fashion insiders keep score of Ms. Wintour's conspicuously short list of designers for whom she serves as cheerleader in chief. (Well, okay, those on the longer list for whom she does not cheerlead keep track as well.) The average American consumer, and dare I say even but the most attentive of Vogue readers, can't tell you who curries her favor and who doesn't. Read Cathy Horyn's excellent New York Times piece "Citizen Anna" if you need to catch up.

By contrast, women all over the country and the world, can tell you not only which designers and brands she favors (J Crew, White House Black Market, Maria Pinto, Narciso Rodriguez, Maria Cornejo), but wait with baited breath for whom she will add to her expanding list of favorites. Anna Winour may be an elite kingmaker behind the scenes, but Michelle Obama is a populist kingmaker who can make household names out of relatively obscure designers like Maria Pinto and, as she surely did yesterday, with Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo. But she can also make merchandise fly out of showrooms and store shelves, in large part because like people of real contemporary style she is adept at navigating and mixing high and low pricepoints with enviable ease. In the current dismal retail environment, Mrs. Obama's power is remarkably important, whether you're courting favor by impressing her with your merchandise at the mall or by knowing Ikram Goldberg, the influential Chicago retailer who (unofficially but with glaring business savvy) has the First Lady's ear.

This is not to say that all of her fashion choices are always right. She has made plenty of mistakes but that is to be expected of anyone who goes out of their way to think (or in this case, dress) out of the box. An economic analogy will make the point of Mrs. Obama's true success. When you take risks, as long as more of your risks pay off big, the risks which fail are easily overshadowed.

As for the clothes she wore yesterday, here's my take: the color of the Isabel Toledo ensemble was beautiful and extremely flattering (which is what I think people are responding to when they rave about how good she looked) but apart from that, if you added a handbag and goofy hat, it was essentially an Princess Margaret outfit or a mother of the bride outfit.

The camel skirt, black silk blouse and black silk lined camel coat she wore to the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday which was designed by Narciso Rodriquez was the real show stopper of the inaugural events. Right down to the belt and the earings , I don't think I have ever seen her look more chic and sophisticated.

The Jason Wu gown was a clearly a labor of love and craftmanship. Its color choice certainly brought to mind the inaugural choices of the two chicest First Lady's of the 2oth century, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.

As far as Inaugural ballgowns go, it was one of the best ever. But it also came dangerously close to looking like a wedding dress and the train made it visibly awkward to dance in. I'm not convinced that a column dress was the most flattering choice for her figure.

That said, the good news is really that this is only the beginning of her look for formal events on the international stage and it was impressive enough. She's already proven that she can engage both the ordinary public and the design world with her choices. I hear they both send their best wishes for a marriage of style and politics. To view more of Tom Kolovos' work, log on to the and the NBC Chicago Street Team blog.

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