The cover of Michelle Obama’s newly released memoir, Becoming, shows the former first lady leaning forward, a big smile on her face. She wears a loose white top that dips off one shoulder, and her hair falls in the beachy waves that many have tried and failed to replicate via YouTube tutorial. The pale blue background is nearly the same hue as in the Amy Sherald portrait of her that hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; as in that painting, she rests a manicured hand under her chin.
This is Michelle Obama, post-White House: approachable, casual, but still eminently polished and aspirational.
Self-presentation isn’t everything in politics, but it’s important. Obama knows that well. As she writes in her book, becoming first lady came with an enormous amount of pressure where optics were concerned. She was keenly aware that being the first black woman to occupy that position only magnified the challenge.
With the publication of her book, already No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list, Obama is now presenting a new side of herself to the public. It’s not all that different from her look between 2008 to 2016 — “approachable” and “polished” sum up the J.Crew outfits she was known for during those years — but now that her successor is absorbing the sartorial scrutiny that comes with the office of first lady, Obama has the space to dial things up a notch.
Her cover styling could also be interpreted as a rebuke of the rumors that she’s gearing up to run for office, which she seems to debunk in the book (“I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that”). The Washington Post noted that her white top is “not the kind of shirt a soon-to-be political candidate wears.” But as New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman wrote after the midterm elections, the wave of women entering Congress brings with it new definitions of how politicians can and should dress. The days of the pantsuit and pearls may be numbered.
On Tuesday, Elle released its December cover story, for which Oprah interviewed Obama. The accompanying photo shoot casts Obama in a more fashion-forward light than we’re used to seeing her: A black leather Dior corset layered over a crisp white shirt and pleated skirt (the latter tempering, but not erasing, the edginess of the former), and a black mesh top worn with silky, billowy silver trousers. Again, this is Michelle Obama letting loose without ever losing control.
Obama’s book cover and the Elle editorial were created by the same team: photographer Miller Mobley, hairstylist Yene Damtew, makeup artist Carl Ray, and stylist Meredith Koop. While these pictures present two facets of Obama’s new look, they’re also a continuation of her image-making in the White House, since Ray and Koop (who moved from Chicago to DC to work as a personal stylist for Obama) were key players on her team during that time.
It feels a bit odd to be discussing Obama’s wardrobe choices for her book launch, since she discusses the initial discomfort and ambivalence she felt about the public’s fascination with her style in that same memoir. In an excerpt published by Elle, Obama describes the experience of having people focus primarily on her clothing.
It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say. In London, I’d stepped offstage after having been moved to tears while speaking to the girls at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, only to learn that the first question directed to one of my staffers by a reporter had been “Who made her dress?”
This stuff got me down, but I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to use what power I could find inside a situation I’d never have chosen for myself. If people flipped through a magazine primarily to see the clothes I was wearing, I hoped they’d also see the military spouse standing next to me or read what I had to say about children’s health.
Despite those early frustrations, Obama recognized that “optics governed more or less everything in the political world.” The effort, therefore, that went into her clothing choices was sizable. In preparation for her trips abroad, Koop did extensive research about local traditions to make sure that the first lady was making the right impression; packing for all kinds of weather and unplanned appearances was an involved process. The stakes, Obama writes, were high.
When it came to my choices, I tried to be somewhat unpredictable, to prevent anyone from ascribing any sort of message to what I wore. It was a thin line to walk. I was supposed to stand out without overshadowing others, to blend in but not fade away. As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high-end, and I’d also be criticized if I was too casual. So I mixed it up. I’d match a Michael Kors skirt with a T-shirt from Gap. I wore something from Target one day and Diane von Furstenberg the next.
Though she’s departed the White House, those lessons stand. People are going to flip through Elle to see what she’s wearing, and they’ll likely read the interview about her book on the way. Obama’s friendly, appealing styling on the cover of her book is an enticement to buy a copy.
As first lady, Obama’s sartorial legacy was one of approachability, of championing up-and-coming American designers, which mirrored her warm demeanor. Now in the next phase of her career in the public eye, Obama seems to be doubling down.