Pictured Above: First Lady and unexpected style icon Michelle Obama
Like fur, organized religion and any movie starring 'film actress' Jennifer Aniston, I tend to avoid the topic of First Lady fashion as a matter of principle. Not only do such discussions unwittingly work to legitimate the hoary and infantilizing belief that First Ladies should be seen and not heard, but they participate in a much wider decentralized campaign to distract the public from some of the more pressing--and often depressing--political concerns of the day (healthcare, perpetual war, and a slack economy, to name just a few). But ongoing discussions of First Lady Michelle Obama's style have compelled me to lift my prohibition on the subject; too much has been left unsaid, and I think, gentle reader, you smell exactly what I'm steppin' in.
There is no doubt that Ms. Obama is a stylish lady, but more interesting than her wardrobe choices is the popular discourse that has emerged around them. There is, for example, the issue of her upper arms. They are lean, sculpted and, according to some, on public display far too often. Then there's the rather dull debate about her decision to wear an Asian-American (vs African-American) designer at the Inaugural Ball (as if Ms. Obama should be expected to carry the weight of the entire AA community on her sinewy, overexposed shoulders). And who could forget the puerile accusations that her frocks inappropriately upstage her husband, who, such an argument assumes, must be the star of each of their many appearances?
Pictured Above: Moments from Ebony's "Fashion Fair," 1954-1969
With the exception of the second controversy, much of the talk surrounding Ms. Obama has very carefully avoided her skin, focusing instead--and with the intensity of a thousand suns--on the material she has opted to wrap it in. Not since Jackie Kennedy or Princess Diana has public interest in first lady fashion been so acute. And never before has it been quite so
'mixed.' No one, for example, ever publicly complained about any of Ms. Kennedy's many sleeveless frocks, and Lady Diana continues to eclipse her husband's fame even in death. But perhaps Ms. Obama's arms really are displayed with more frequency than were Ms. Kennedy's. Perhaps her Jason Wu dress really was more 'flashy' than Diana's elaborate princess gowns. Or perhaps she's just blacker than these two women, and all of the historical baggage and ideology associated with her gendered blackness is somehow coloring (pun intended) the talk about her style.
We could never, of course, admit this because we would then have to also admit that race and the inequities that underwrite it still exist. As a purportedly 'colorblind' society, we are not permitted to 'see' race, so it makes sense that we cannot talk about it either. (How does one discuss something that reportedly doesn't exist?) If one brings up the issue of race, one is a racist, for only racists still notice color. (Referencing the absurdity of this dictum that we all now somehow labor under, Stephen Colbert once suggested that he doesn't know if he is white. He assumes so much, though, since surveys reveal that Republicans would vote for him.) But race, I want to suggest, lingers just below the surface of all of these discussions about Ms. Obama's style. Because race still exists on both a theoretical and a practical level, but is no longer available to us as an acceptable concept through which to understand the world, any discussion of it must be couched in more mundane terms. I would submit that in the case of Michelle Obama, these terms have coalesced around fashion. Her jewelry, her cardigans, her hair have all become empty vessels through which the impolite discussion of her race now takes place. If read close enough and in the context of our country's ongoing history of race relations, this coded talk easily reveals itself--perhaps sometimes even to its authors.
I think it goes without saying that we'd all love to live in a colorblind society, but the realities of our recent history simply do not permit us to responsibly live in such a world. What's more, such a world overwrites certain histories that have helped constitute our contemporary moment. When fashion pundits remark time and again on the affinities between the style of Ms. Obama and that of Ms. Kennedy, they are slowly (and probably unknowingly) working to erase from the collective public memory a whole history of well-dressed Black women, some of whom may well have inspired Ms. Obama's style. In a colorblind society like the one we're supposed to fancy, such memories won't exist. Neither, of course, will Ebony. Vogue, however, will. Therein lies the problem.