Was Michelle Obama’s choice of frock Tuesday night a statement?
You bet it was. Here is a woman who spent the last six months having to explain to an audience of gasbags like Rush Limbaugh how she really is “proud of my country” as though such an existential disclosure was prerequisite to avoiding the ducking stool
Whether it was, as Project Runway would say, “fashion forward,” or a fashion fright, the Narciso Rodriquez ensemble Obama wore for her husband’s victory speech was anything but a genuflection to the establishment, nor some gratuitous curtsy to her detractors to emphasize that no, she is not Bobby Seale in J. Crew and combat boots.
Instead the dress — one fashionista described it as a “lava lamp” — all red flame and black sleekness, was a fashion declaration of independence, her own, and by extension, her family’s, as she proves – fashion misfires and all — that she doesn’t have to look like an Easter egg exploded on the White House lawn to fit in with the pantheon of first ladies before her. It’s also a subtle acknowledgment that striving to look like all those ladies would be silly, as she certainly does not, and she can indulge, unfettered by tradition, in more than a little history-making of her own.
Obama is already sparking comparisons to Jackie-O, but it’s really the inside that counts. Jackie may have been more glamorous and as mom would say, “had more class than the lot of ‘em,” but she could never shake that long-suffering aura shrouded about many of these first mates, including our most recent and more appropriately, also-ran first lady Cindy McCain. Nor does Obama invoke the primary-colored pantsuited piranha, who would see her time at the White House as one extended political campaign and a platform for her own ambition.
No, the woman on stage Tuesday seems to inhabit a world more centered than that, in a marriage that was seeded in a courtship during more private and humble times, of shared values and intelligence, mutual respect and obvious attraction, and could it be, love? Whether you agree with their politics or not, the very earthiness of their union could prune back the White House a bit closer to its intended size*, shedding all of the gilded, monarchical festooning, moldy class and dynastic trappings, the ritual phoniness and not-so-easily disguised hypocrisies bloating the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over the last one hundred years for something, ironically, more closely resembling the first families of a much earlier time.
Putting politics aside for moment, I think it’s refreshing, a post-boomer romance in the White House. Fist-bumping couture and all.
* I do not suggest that love can conquer all — much less the size of government. It’s the symbolism, the cultural iconography of the White House as a modern imperial palace that I am addressing here.