Michelle Obama may be a trained lawyer with an Ivy League education, but on Tuesday night she will be America's Top Model. What she wears to the inaugural balls will set the style agenda for the administration and hold a mirror up to what it means to be a woman in America right now, which still includes being judged by your appearance.
In 1977, Rosalynn Carter recycled the blue gown she'd worn for her husband's gubernatorial inaugural, in keeping with the president's decision to host the People's Inaugural, complete with $25 ball tickets. Four years later, Nancy Reagan's $10,000 bugle-beaded James Galanos gown signaled a return to glamour in the White House that was curiously timed, considering the country was about to enter a recession.
If there's one thing that's almost certain, it's that Obama will wear American, because the inaugural gown is a sartorial flag waved around the world. Which explains why, even though the Hollywood red carpet season is running full tilt, designers are lining up to dress the future first lady.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush paid tribute to their hometowns, choosing to work with relatively unknown local designers on their inaugural evening ensembles. Clinton's violet rhinestone gown with a chiffon overskirt was by Sarah Phillips of Little Rock., Ark. And Bush turned to Dallas-based Michael Faircloth for her beaded red Chantilly lace confection. Has anybody heard of those two designers since?
For their husbands' second inaugurations, both women traded up to Oscar de la Renta, an institution among New York's high society whose brand of Old World elegance is above criticism.
Obama has worn several creations by Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto. Obama favors Pinto's solid-colored sheaths, which make for a nice photograph, especially when worn by someone who is fit, with a 5-foot-11-inch frame. At press time her choice was unknown, but she could continue the hometown inaugural gown tradition by going with the low-key Pinto. It would be the safest choice, considering the uproar created by her fussy black-and-red election night dress, which was straight from the runway. One of Pinto's modern designs would be refreshing after the bedazzled opulence of the Southern-tinged Clinton and Bush ball gowns.
But the clothing that has resonated most with the public hasn't been Obama's designer dresses; it's been the things she bought off-the-rack: the Gap sundress worn to a Fourth of July parade, the J.Crew ensemble chosen for her appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," the White House Black Market print dress that sold out after she wore it on "The View." Those choices did more to convince voters that she is "one of us" than almost anything else. It's no wonder, after years of being inundated with paparazzi and red carpet photos of stars wearing millions of dollars of free designer duds, that Obama's real-world style would captivate us. She is a fashion icon for the everywoman.
Which begs the question: Why not choose an inaugural gown off the rack? What if a J. Crew dress turned up in the "First Ladies at the Smithsonian" exhibit, alongside historic styles worn by Helen Taft and Eleanor Roosevelt? It would be a daring, populist-chic statement, ranking alongside Sharon Stone's ball skirt and Gap shirt Academy Awards ensemble.
But it's not likely. Because at least for one night, we want our first lady to be more glamorous than the rest of us. We don't want her to be Secondhand Rose, but we don't want her to be Marie Antoinette either. The secret to Obama's sartorial success so far has been walking the line between the two. Here's hoping she continues to do so.