Cathy Horyn Worries Mrs. Obama Overshadowed By Fashion
Jan 28, 2011 - by Lester Brathwaite
Over a week after she wore an Alexander McQueen gown to the state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao, opinions are still rolling on Michelle Obama's choice in designer. But New York Times Style reporter Cathy Horyn thinks that all this focus on what the First Lady wears could distract from all the good she does.
Horyn already expressed her approval of the gown, stating that it "recalled some of the opulent state dinners of the Reagan era" and trumpeted the gown's approapriate level of "pomp". She also understands the subsequent fallout that has occurred, led by Oscar "The Grouch" de la Renta, over choosing a foreign designer for such an important occasion:
"His [de la Renta's] business is based in the garment district, and by using local factories for most of his production, he contributes to its prosperity. This is an important issue to him."
She is less sympathetic, however, to the CFDA, whom she sees as being more than just a bit hypocritical in their condemnation and are simply trying to "goad" Mrs. O into wearing American designers:
"The truth is many of its members, including its president, Diane Von Furstenberg, manufacture a significant portion of their clothes outside the United States, mainly in Asia."
But given the heated rhetoric over one gown chosen for one event over one week ago, Horyn thinks and rightfully so that attention is being taken away from Mobama's substantial accomplishments.
"I want her to be known for something other than her fashion. I want her to be a great first lady who truly cares about the lives of Americans at the time when many need help. I want her to be far more than prime placement for a dress label whatever the country of origin. She supports a number of causes, notably healthful eating habits, but these deeds are being overshadowed by what she wears."
Horyn goes on to cite an article in The Economist that expressed the hope "to hear more about what Mrs Obama thinks and a lot less about what she wears."
That article, published during the first months of Barack Obama's administration, cited Michelle Obama's impressive background she graduated cum laude from Princeton and earned her law degree from Harvard before embarking on a successful career in the public and private sector and credited her hands-on approach during the 2008 election, traveling around the country giving "intelligent, substantive and well-delivered" speeches in support of her husband.
Ever since that election the White House, according to the article, has tamed down this image, trying "its best to turn the first lady into a celebrity mother-cum-clothes-horse," in reaction to Hillary Clinton's forthrightness during the first years of the Clinton administration.
"Hillary Clintons determination to act as a virtual co-president back in 1993 helped to create a backlash against her husbands administration. It also raised uncomfortable questions about power and accountability. Given Americas continued neuroses about race, an outspoken black first lady might prove to be even more divisive than an outspoken white one."
Not only would an "outspoken black first lady be divisive," it would be downright alienating. It's true that Mrs. O has taken a back seat to her husband his position practically calls for it but that has not reduced her own merits. It's really America's perception of the Obamas and who Americans want them to be and want them to represent that has dictated this fanatic fascination with her sense of style.
At the onset of the Obama administration, there was an excitement that everything would be different, better. A sort of optimism that was frequently compared to John F. Kennedy's election some 50 years prior. And with this new, black Camelot came as The Economist put it the "Jackiefication" of Michelle Obama.
Couple that with the fact that the Obamas were younger, more attractive and more accessible than any first family since the Kennedys and the American public couldn't help but slip Michelle into Jackie Kennedy's iconic pillbox hat. It was all part of the optimism, but with this comparison we lost or forgot or chose to forget the Michelle Obama of the campaign trail; the passionate, articulate Ivy-league educated attorney who stood beside her husband rather than behind him.
It's easy to forget that despite her flirtations with couture and high society, Jackie Kennedy was also a well-educated woman with her own opinions who later in life had a successful career as a book editor. Hillary Clinton simply reinvented what a First Lady could do and hers is a large pantsuit to fill.
Horyn believes that the only person who can change the perception of Michelle Obama is Michelle Obama. But it's all part of a great balancing act. After all, Michelle Obama represents so many things to so many people. As an African American, she is an inspiration for all minorities; as a successful woman, she is an inspiration for other women; as first Lady of the United States, she is the face of America and a champion for civil causes; but at the end of the day she is a woman and like most women her clothes are an extension of her.
It's impossible to please everyone, particularly when everyone has an opinion about what you say, where you go and what you wear. No doubt it would behoove the press to focus on the causes Mo champions, but let's be real, that shit doesn't sell. And if there's one thing Americans respond to it's celebrity culture. There are no bigger celebrities in the world than the Obamas and like all celebrities, we as a culture love to build them up and tear them down, only to build them up back again.
This dress controversy will blow over, but how will history remember Michelle Obama? Will she be proactive like Hilary? A style icon like Jackie? A lush like Betty? Sure Mo has a hand in her legacy, but America will remember what it chooses to remember. Thats the way history works. It's written selectively by the winners, so for all her degrees and her speeches and her social work, will she only be remembered for a few great dresses?
We'll have to wait to see how the rest of her husband's presidency goes before we can even begin to answer that.
Link Love: New York Times