When Barbara (“Babe”) won the “Mrs. O, The Face Of Fashion Democracy” giveaway, she agreed to review the book for the rest of us. Barbara did just that, and here are her reflections. Thanks so much for your time and effort, Barbara. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review!
When I was a young girl and my parents took our family on a trip to Washington DC, it was not images of the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial that stayed in my mind for years afterward. It was the display of dresses at the Smithsonian Institute. Dresses first ladies had worn for their husbands’ inaugural ceremonies.
Add to this the fact that the nomination, campaign, election, inauguration and administration of Barack Obama has captured my attention more than any of the previous presidential histories I’ve lived through, and you can understand why I am delighted to have won Angie’s raffle and the chance to review the new book by Mary Tomer, Mrs. O ,The Face of Fashion Democracy.
If you don’t love Michelle Obama when you buy this book, you probably will after you’ve read it. And chances are, once you open this book you won’t put it down soon. Be warned: it will cast its magic spell on you. It’s more than a treatment of the first lady’s wardrobe. It’s also a concise look at how the fashion industry works in America now.
As if the dresses, shoes, coats and jewelry weren’t transporting enough, Michelle Obama will impress you with her intelligence, confidence, compassion and sense of what’s appropriate fashion-wise and otherwise. The author drives home the point that the first lady has an undeniable sense of her signature style, a very personal style that’s not just a bland formula to rotate stock garments in and out of (the way Mrs. Clinton does her pants suits, or Nancy Pelosi her pearls and Armani, or even Sarah Palin her colorful parkas and pencil skirts).
For women who are high profile, elected officials (or women married to high profile, elected officials) sartorial choices amount to a tightrope walk between boxy suits and flirty dresses. Besides the sexuality issue, there are issues with economics and values.
The fashion choices Mrs. Obama has been making have cast her as neither elitist nor frivolous – never easy for a woman who loves fashion and is always being judged by media and the public. Both Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan were criticized for spending too much money on clothing. Jackie responded by wearing American designers, and Nancy let everyone know her gowns were donated to her and then donated to charity. Michelle responds by buying J. Crew online and wearing things she’s owned for years.
But there are plenty of drop-dead designer dresses in that White House closet we’d all love to peek into. This book is as close as you’ll get to that closet.
It has 236 pages in a 8- by 10-inch format, and almost every two-page spread features at least one color photo of the first lady in a different outfit, or perhaps a close-up picture of one of her brooches, shoes, or necklaces. After opening with a brief timeline-style biography, the text moves to a series of entries describing important events Mrs. Obama attended over the last two years and what she wore to each.
It was at these points, when reading about specific outfits worn at events, like meeting the Queen of England or attending an election debate, that the switch from historic facts of who, when and where, moves so quickly into dressmaking details that I sometimes felt like I was reading a J. Peterman catalog.
“The “whistle-stop” tour would depart from Philadelphia, making stops in Wilmington and Baltimore before arriving in Washington, D.C., that same evening. On the morning of January 17, a crowd convened in the North Waiting Room of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Mrs. Obama was smartly dressed in a tailored purple jacket and cashmere rollneck top by Zero + Maria Cornejo, paired with fitted black pants and black suede boots.”
Interspersed in this chronology are one-page profile/interviews with the designers and fashion journalists represented in the book. I found it interesting to read how different designers had chosen their careers, schooled themselves, and made their way through the ranks, as well as how they reacted to having one of their designs chosen by Mrs. Obama.
These interviews are sprinkled with questions like, “How did you want the first lady to feel wearing your dress?’ And “What do you make of the attention on Michelle Obama’s style?” And “What do you love most about what you do?”
The author does not dumb down fashion industry lingo, so at times I had to research certain people and terms, but part of the beauty of reading a good book is that it stretches you.
The couture clothing showcased in this book is so artistically designed and impeccably constructed that after reading their descriptions, I wanted to empty my closet and simply, totally, start over. Obviously I couldn’t do that, but what I did do was look through my closet and ask, “What would Michelle wear?” By playing this game, I was able to pull together some outfits, ones that I would never have thought of otherwise. It’s an interesting experiment I would recommend anyone try after reading the book. I mean, rather than take fashion cues from movie stars dressed and groomed by experts, why not follow the lead of a fashion-loving Harvard-educated attorney and corporate executive who was born female and black at a time when those categories amounted to major obstacles to success in America? Diane von Furstenburg says about Michelle Obama, “She represents the modern, confident, intelligent woman. Her personality will have a huge effect on fashion.”
Of course, much of the credit for the first lady’s style goes to the professionals who advise her, most notably Ikram Goldman, the woman who owns the Chicago boutique Ikram, where Mrs. Obama has gone for clothing since 2006. Ikram phones designers with assignments and special requests for either custom pieces or items from their clothing and jewelry collections.
Mrs. Obama’s style has been called friendly, approachable, and “imperfect in a charming way.” She favors sleeveless sheath dresses, but wears full skirted dresses as well. Cardigans are common. Colorful solids, embroidered or lace textures, bold graphics, floral motifs, belts, and large statement brooches are elements of her special look.
What’s consistent about Mrs. Obama’s style is that she makes choices that are appropriate for the occasion and that convey a message, and she does it without looking costume-y. For a visit to a London girls’ school she sported an asymmetrical, argyle sweater embellished with a line of sequins. For a mid-America, Fourth of July rally she showed up in a blue and white windowpane plaid sundress from Gap. For the oath of office ceremony and parade, she wowed the world with a high style ensemble in a refreshing new color. For a European tour she wore a dress and jacket designed by a French-Tunisian designer while the Obamas were guests of the French President and his fashion model wife.
Wherever she is, it’s clear from this book that Michelle Obama somehow looks elegant even when wearing capris and a royal blue tee shirt that says “Supporting our troops” in block letters. Look again at the photo and you’ll see she’s rolled up the sleeves and scrunched the hemline slightly. Andre Leon Talley of Vogue is quoted in the book as saying, “Her deportment, her way of turning casual into high style is the most powerful tool in her philosophy of ‘wear what you love.’”
Maria Cornejo, who has contributed dresses and tailored jackets to Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe for several years, says about her own approach to design, “I think the whole thing is to have beautiful clothes, but to look like you just threw them on in the morning.”
And Michael Kors, whose dress Mrs. Obama wore for her official portrait, says, “She gives off the message that it’s okay to be interested in fashion and taken seriously…Quite frankly, we haven’t had anyone in the White House like this before.”
Unless your politics get in the way, if you are fascinated by fashion you will enjoy this book. Although it is not oversized, I’m going to call it a coffee table book because the photographic reproduction and paper quality are excellent. The graphic design is sophisticated and easy on the eyes, but has an informal, contemporary edge befitting the subject matter.
The author has a website that posts frequent updates on what the first lady is wearing (Mrs-O.org). The book ends by quoting some of what fans have posted on the website about Mrs. Obama and her clothing, demonstrating the extent of her influence on people of all backgrounds, ages, and heritages. Accompanying these quotes are some simple and unique illustrations of the first lady.
On the downside, I found the book to be often repetitive with facts. How many times do we have to be told that Mrs. Obama gets clothing through Ikram in Chicago? I would like to have seen more side-by-side photos of Mrs. Obama wearing some of the same garment different ways on separate occasions. It would have been fun to see prices on some of the items. And, an index would have made the book more user-friendly.
To Angie, I say thank you for putting the book in my hands (beautifully gift-wrapped at that ) and giving me the chance to review it for other YLF readers. Now, I’m waiting for that inaugural gown to become part of the Smithsonian’s collection, so I can schedule my trip to D.C.