Why Michelle Obama Matters

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The Pink Flamingo has made no secret of my early contempt for the atrocious wardrobe malfunctions that Michelle Obama wore, early on as First Lady Elect and First Lady.  They were deplorable.  Either she was trying too hard to make a point, or someone was dressing her.  If someone was dressing her, they were doing a horrible job.

My complaint against her early choices was due to the fact that she was lowering her standards to attempt to appear more ‘we the people’ and not ‘first lady’. I suspect that someone was dressing her, and sandbagging her.  It was quite obvious, when one compared pre-running for office, with the time her husband was running for office.  She changed her whole style, and her comfort level was obviously lowered.

Now though, the real Michelle Obama is emerging.  When her admirers and the fawning press were crediting her for her courageous choices in fashion, they were pandering.  She looked horrid.  Now, though, as the real Michelle Obama is emerging – the Michelle Obama American Fashion Icon, they are strangely silent.  I guess they don’t like the fact that she had adapted to and is wearing a vintage retro look that is magnificent!

Why Michelle Obama’s fashion choices matter are important for several reasons.  The most important is that she is wearing what looks good on her.  Secondly, she has forever put her mark on what American women will wear, not maybe in her choices, but she has taken the American Woman back to her fashion roots.

Empress Eugenie - by Worth

The Pink Flamingo has been researching and writing a book on American Fashion from 1860-1910 for several years.  I have looked at at least 15,000 photos of what people in this nation once wore.  My book, which is nearly finished, has at least 2100 original, unpublished photos from the years 1855 – 1910. I have made several interesting discoveries about the way Americans, men and women, once dressed.  Michelle Obama is proving my point, ergo I am thrilled with her choices.

Empress Eugenie - by Worth

Up until about 1911 or so, and the advent of Hollywood, American fashion was completely unique.  Americans dressed differently from their European counterparts.  The styles were the same, only, after looking at 15,000 photos, there is an obvious uniquely American difference.  It is most easily seen in before and after photos of arriving immigrants.  Not long after arriving here, they dress like their European relatives, either in traditional or “street” clothes.  Within 6 months, their photos will tell a completely different story.  After looking at thousands of photos, you can easily pick out the photos of Americans.

There is no way to describe the differences.  Even couture costume worn in New York is slightly different.  You will find actresses and actors wearing what they always wear, only when purchased in this country, it is different.  There is no actual way to put words to the differences, just the way things are worn, and perhaps cut.  Europe went to extremes.  Americans moderated, just a little.

Empress Eugenie of France
American - 1850

For example, Mary Todd Lincoln was a fashionista if ever there was one.  She was perhaps the first First Lady to actually wear designer or couture costume.  Her exquisite, “Scarlet O’Hara’ hoop skirts were based on designs by Charles Worth, the first couture designer.  What she wore looked quite different from what Empress Eugenie, who was the first royal fashion icon.   Charles Worth was designing in France.  Mary Todd uses his designs, for her own.

American women have clung to their full skirts, from the 1840s until today, with off and on flirtations, always coming back to a full skirt.  That is one reason the dresses being worn by Michelle Obama are so important.  They are American Woman coming home to what looks best on them.

1866 Gown by Worth

The hoop skirt reached its apex in the 1860s, when Worth retooled it for Empress Eugenie of France.  He redesigned the hoops which became extremely important for the American Woman.  I will not disclose more of my information because it is for my book.  The important thing is that EVERY American woman who could find the couple dollars needed to buy a machine tooled set of hoops was wearing them, even women on the plantations who had yet to be set free.  This is terribly important, because, by 1865 and the end of the War, there was no difference between wMary Todd Lincoln - American hoopshat white women and women who had once been slaves were wearing.  The only difference was money.  Women were all wearing the same thing, and that was a hoop.  The style was the origin of the American shirt-waist, the same thing you are seeing on Michelle Obama today.

There were gradual changes brought about by Worth.  In the mid-1860s, you will see a gradual raising of the waist.  That was a way for Worth to hide the pregnancy of Empress Eugenie.  So, women on both sides of the Atlantic raised their waist.  By 1868, Worth was sick and tired of the hoop.  He detested them, so he began narrowing them, and putting in a train and a bit of a bustle.

Mary Todd Lincoln - Brady Phodo

Worth did not invent the bustle.  There was a brief flirtation with it after the French Terror, but the bustle never succeeded.  Worth beg

an to reinvent it, and made it his own.  He made it so important a fashion accessory, that women finally gave up their beloved hoops, and began wearing a bustle.  But – women hated it.  You will see more elaborate bustles in Europe.  The average American woman wore a little bit of a bustle, and that was it.

The Brady photo of Mary Todd Lincoln shows the American version of the way a mid-1860s hoop skirt was worn.  There are several poses in the photo shoot. As far as I can tell, the CDV I own, from this photo shoot, has never been published, which is why you are not seeing it in this post.

Empress Eugenie gown by Worth - c 1870

Nowhere can the differences between Europe and America be seen better than in the bustle.  For some strange reason, an ‘average’ European woman was more likely to wear a more elaborate bustle than her American counterpart.  That is true, even for women of wealth.  Women wore bustles, but they were removable.  They would put the extra pieces of the garment on for something special or a photo, then take them off after church on Sunday. The two/three part outfit – skirt and jacket, and maybe a blouse, could be used for more than one function.

Empress Eugenie - Gown by Worth, early 1870s

With the advent of the bustle, Worth had given American women their first taste of “ready-made” (when possible) fashionable garments that were multi-functional.  By dressing the skirt/jacket/blouse up with a more elaborate bustle, a woman could go out for dinner or a party, after either working (and women were working outside the home by then) or her afternoon social round.

Princess Victoria - c1875

She would simply pin on the additions to the back of the skirt, and add a bit of frills around the jacket, a pin or two, and she was ready for evening.  During the morning, dealing with life, home, or work, she wore the skirt quite plainly, with little or no homage to the bustle.  The jacket was removed for just the blouse.  The obsequious American women’s suit was born.

Contrary to popular opinion, the skirt worn by the ‘Average’ American woman did not drag the ground, even during the Gone With the Wind Days.  There

American - c1883

was usually an inch or two between the floor and the gown.  Only women who had servants wore their gowns dragging the dirt.  A maid could quickly rip out the bottom – the dust ruffle, and sew on another.  The busy American woman simply did not have time for dust-ruffles, so she raised the hemline.  By 1875 that hemline was about tree inches off the ground, if not a bit higher.

American look - c1880

The elaborate dust ruffle would be sewn or more likely pinned in, for Sundays.  The moment a woman had access to a sewing machine, it was easy to set in a dust ruffle, so she wore them more often.  The primary economic difference with American women of all races could be seen in the color of the fabric, and the fabric itself.  A wealthy woman could afford lovely colors.  An ‘Average’ American woman would stick to a darker, more serviceable color.  Women who lived near large cities had access to better fabrics, choice, and lower prices.

American - c1885

By about 1885 or so, every American girl graduating from high school had to have a white lawn dress.  It did not matter if she were white, black, native, or Hispanic. She posed for her picture in a white dress.  Social status and wealth were not the determining factors. The wealthier the girl, the more elaborate gown, but that was about it.  Every girl had one.  The white graduation dress was more important that her wedding gown.

American - c 1874
American - c 1875

The advent of Hollywood and the movies began changing things in this country, when it came to fashion.  American women began looking toward Europe for their designs, which they always did, but with the mass production of clothing and department stores, it becomes more and more difficult to tell the difference between American clothing and European clothing.  The primary exceptions are things that were nationalistic and regional.  A prime example of this is the “western look” which did not come out of the Wild West, but out of Hollywood.

American - 1877
American - generic 1880s
American - late 1880s
French - Worth - late 1880s

Why does Michelle Obama matter? 

For the first time in many years, there is a difference between American fashion and the rest of the world.  Hollywood helped, but Michelle Obama is very much responsible for it.  The highly criticized $950 skirt is another important all “American” iconic look, even it if is Comme des Garcons.  The look evolves from the ‘prairie’ style that allegedly comes from traditional American sources.  The problem with that the fact that the ‘prairie’ skirt is not an American “original”.  It evolved from the squaw skirt worn by Navajo women.

Traditional Navajo skirt
Long version of prairie skirt

The problem with the “traditional” multi-tiered prairie skirt is that, even thought it was adapted from the Navajo skirt, it was created by a California designer named Agnes Barrett. She created the design as a homage to her Hispanic heritage.  The rest is history.   The things Michelle Obama wears also draw inspiration from Louella Ballerino who turned “ethnic” into an art form. She also favors designs similar to those inspired by Adele Simpson.

 

The Pittsburg Press
Agnes Barrett Design

Conservatives criticize this woman at their own risk.  If they were being fair and honest, they would admit that Michelle Obama, once she ceased trying to be another Jackie O. could be one of the most fashionable and best dressed First Ladies we have had – period.  Sure, she had her misses, but they are becoming farther and farther between.

I’ve been noticing what she has been wearing for some time, but even I was astonished when I began putting it all together.  Her spouse may be one of the worst presidents in history, but we need to admit and take notice that Michelle Obama is one of the great fashion icons in the White House.

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One thought on “Why Michelle Obama Matters

  1. Very interesting post. I loved seeing pictures of all the old clothes. I have seen several old gowns by Worth in museums. They are really lovely. I guess it is important for people like Michelle to wear the name brands. I love to look at pretty clothes, but I’ve always dressed for comfort. T-shirts and walking shorts for the summer and pants and sweaters for the winter form my basic wardrobe. Very dull, I know, but I enjoy it. Since I’ve just turned eighty I might show up for mass with my snuggie or wearing my hoodie jacket. Down here, the Mardi Gras season will start soon after today. There will be many balls and women will spend a lot of money on ball gowns. A formal gown is even required to view the ball. Now, I usually wear simple gowns of black, navy or emerald green and I don’t dance much anymore. I don’t plan on attending any balls, but if I’m invited I try to go.

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