Four years ago last week, Michelle Obama stepped into the public eye on election night wearing a red-and-black Narciso Rodriguez dress that launched an obsession. It was an obsession about what she wore and how she wore it – and that in turn launched the careers of numerous designers, popularised the concept of high/low dressing and upturned the unspoken law that said First Ladies must wear only American designers. Along the way, it redefined what “American” designer actually meant: Cuban-American (Isabel Toledo), Chilean-American (Maria Cornejo), Chinese-American (Jason Wu) and Nepalese-American (Prabal Gurung).
Last Tuesday, in the same situation, thumbs-up and hugging her husband as he officially won his second term as US president, Mrs Obama ended that conversation.
Put simply: she wore an old dress, a Michael Kors burgundy brocade number she had sported twice before. And it wasn’t the first time during this presidential campaign that she had recycled: she appeared in a grey-and-black lace Thom Browne dress at both the first presidential debate and the Democratic National Convention; a beaded L’Wren Scott cashmere cardigan to hang out with Samantha Cameron and on the hustings in October, to name a couple of instances.
As the website Mrs-O.com noted, the First Lady “certainly has been shopping her closet as of late!” What they missed was that this was perhaps a signal that their subject wanted to focus on something else besides the impulses that actually created Mrs-O.com in the first place.
Let me digress for a moment.
One of the best journalism lessons I ever had took place long before I had any idea I wanted to get into journalism (I think at the time I wanted to be either an astronaut or a neurosurgeon, which gives you an idea of my then-level of self-awareness). It was the early 1980s, and I was in Washington DC on a school trip involving a seminar with a man who had worked in the Carter administration during the Iran hostage crisis.
I think the subject was supposed to be international relations, but what I remember most keenly was an aside made by the former exec: in the early days of the crisis, there was a conscious decision on the part of the president to keep the hostages at the forefront of people’s minds, so they talked about it – a lot. But when the administration entered into real negotiations with the Iranians, the ex-official said, they immediately stopped talking to the public. And within two days the hostages were no longer a media conversation anywhere other than in Walter Cronkite’s running tally of their days in captivity. Whether or not this was true, here’s what I understood: if nobody talks, there’s nothing to talk about.
Granted, this was pre-internet, pre-YouTube and pre-Twitter. And these days people seem very capable of shooting their tweets off about absolutely nothing. But I still think the lesson holds true. And I think that by wearing an old dress – or a series of old dresses – Michelle Obama has, in a sartorial sense, stopped talking.
Before you accuse me of over-interpreting, before you say, “Well, I wear the same dress over and over again, why shouldn’t she?”, I would simply point out a few things. First, she is someone who is clearly aware of her role as a style influencer; second, she has actively leveraged that role to help a raft of designers; and third, she wore ye olde Kors dress at a time when she was pretty much guaranteed the most witnesses possible for the fact that it was an old dress. (It’s not as if she recycled the garment on a low-profile visit to a primary school.)
It was a conscious choice about changing the agenda – about moving it on from cheerleading for an industry or small business to the choices we all have to make about stuff. These are choices about how much is enough, the need to economise and the fact that what we need to change is the mindset that says every season or every event demands or deserves a new thing; that products are, and should be, disposable.
This has been a tenet of fashion for the past decade or so, since luxury brands started acting like the high street. Arguably, Michelle and those who tracked her (guilty! I admit it!) have been complicit in its spread. Well, apparently not any more. She wore that old dress, and it looked good. Why not? It’s a good dress. And good dresses should last.
Like the Queen, who has long recycled her clothes from occasion to occasion (recently she wore the yellow frock, first seen at Prince William’s wedding, on a church visit in Australia), and the Duchess of Cambridge, who has sported an M Missoni blue coat and her nude LK Bennett heels multiple times, Michelle is getting in the trenches with the rest of us – she’s put her wardrobe where her husband’s message is.
Welcome to the White House’s age of austerity. Fashion had better figure out what happens next.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman