What Michelle Obama’s most recent outfits are trying to tell us

A Roksanda x Fila jacket, high-waisted black pants over an asymmetrical light blue bodysuit by Christy Rilling, black pointed ankle boots by Stuart Weitzman, and long, half-braided pigtails might resemble Beyoncé’s ensemble on a quiet New York afternoon, but this is most definitely not what Michelle Obama would wear to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta to promote her new book, The Light We Carry. But at 58, with the invaluable assistance of stylist Meredith Koop, the former first lady presents herself in a new light, choosing sporty and playful ensembles, glitzy brands, and eye-catching colors, which are far removed from her days in the White House and moving inexorably closer to the poses of a fashionista in her 30s. When does a book tour become something else? When it serves as a venue for figuratively remaking a significant public figure, when it serves as a signal to someone whose likeness has been preserved for posterity at one stage of their life, when it signals that it’s time to move on» – Vanessa Friedman wrote in the New York Times, heralding the start of the change we had only been able to see from afar.

Michelle Obama donned a fitting jacket and wide-leg jeans at the first stop in Washington, D.C., during a discussion with Ellen DeGeneres; a working suit by Stella McCartney for the trip in Chicago; and a beautiful faux leather ensemble by Palmer Harding for the stop in Atlanta. However, the change started earlier, in New York, when she wore a vibrant yellow two-piece by Proenza Schouler for an appearance on the Today show. It continued in Washington, D.C., with a flowing Versace shirtdress with black and magenta zebra stripes over fuchsia pants, and ended in San Francisco with Balmain velvet pants and a fitted Diana Ross T-shirt. After years of longuette dresses that limited the stride by squeezing the hips, the pants serve as a unifying element, and the hair is left natural for the first time, an afro with thick braids that are no longer straight.

It was clear that something new existed—and it wasn’t just a book. During a tour stop, Obama revealed to Ellen DeGeneres that she had already thought about braiding her hair in the White House because it would be simpler to manage, but she had opted against it because she believed the American people were “not ready.” The former First Lady was immortalized by painter Sharon Sprung in a sky-blue evening gown with a Bardot-style neckline in a portrait that still hangs on the walls of the White House, witness to an era of political and social change, but little of that figure, as imposing as she was reassuring, at the former president’s side remains now that the burden of First Lady is over. Because she was the first black first lady, she had to take extra care of her image for eight years, rewriting tradition and the future—between what had come before and what would come next, as she noted in The Light We Carry. Every choice she made, including what to wear and how she should dress, was perceived as a public event.

Outside the walls of the White House, Michelle has traded in her floral dresses and J.Crew cardigans for sweeping suits and natural hair, in a gradual process that over the years has also included glittery Balenciaga boots and monochromatic looks. During her husband’s administration, she used the spotlight to focus on a range of independent names, like Jason Wu, Maria Pinto, Rachel Comey, and Brandon Maxwell, who represent the American melting pot. Michelle Obama’s dress is as political as ever, especially in light of the Trump mandate’s emphasis on the incompatibility between Republicans and Democrats. This is especially true when we consider how frequently the media dreamed about her running for president. There is no longer any indication of the subtlety and consideration that once motivated her to stay out of the spotlight so as not to overshadow her husband or of her compliance (and flattening) to the stereotypes of traditional first ladies, even to the disadvantage of her own personality. The lawyer’s choice has the support of many women who are struggling with the wreckage of the patriarchal system and have no clear idea how to rebuild, from a focus on sustainability – by choosing brands that are at the forefront of environmental issues, like Marine Serre, Ganni, and Stella McCartney – to a new and modern portrait of women in power. We also couldn’t help but speculate what Michelle might wear as president after Vogue stylist Meredith Koop said the former First Lady’s fashion choices were driven by her desire to “feel more and more comfortable.”

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