First lady full of style -- and fashion surprises

  • First lady Michelle Obama arrives at the
    Commander-in-Chief's Inaugural Ball in Washington, at the Washington Convention Center during the 57th Presidential Inauguration on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Fashion is no longer the forbidden subject it once was in American politics.

Embracing expensive designer clothes -- and a lot of them -- has not been a problem for Michelle Obama in the way that similar pursuits haunted Nancy Reagan, or even Jackie Kennedy.

Changing a hairstyle, as Obama did Thursday, was not the cause for alarm that it was for Hillary Rodham Clinton, even though the president himself was moved to address his wife's new bangs as "the more significant event of this weekend."

This inauguration, in fact, may have been as much an occasion for celebrating the first lady's style as it was President Barack Obama's second term, and it demonstrated, once again, just how cannily she has used fashion to define her image, without becoming defined by it.

Her choices are safe but interesting, with enough of a story and a variety to keep fashion obsessives engrossed. Wearing a broad array of mostly U.S. designers also feeds into the idea that she is doing her part for the fashion industry.

This was again the case Monday, when Michelle Obama, in a spectacular fashion show, chose her inaugural wardrobe from a range of not-quite-famous American designers, lifting them instantly to the level of household names, and then surprised everyone by choosing Jason Wu to design her inaugural gown for a second time.

All day, designers were glued to the TV to see what Obama was wearing, hoping it would be them, but she ultimately chose the same one who made the first inauguration a fashion success. The dress was persimmon-colored with cross-halter straps and a loose fit similar to the ivory one-shouldered gown she wore in 2009. Her shoes were from Jimmy Choo, and the dress design included a handmade diamond ring by Kimberly McDonald.

"I'm still floating," Wu said from his design studio, where he was watching the ball with his staff. "It is a big surprise. The White House kept me pretty clueless until five minutes ago."

The bright red color, which a White House pool report described as "ruby," was also shocking, especially after a weekend of events when the first lady wore a series of streamlined dresses in dark colors. Many designers thought she would wear blue.

"As a designer, you have to drown out all of that noise," Wu said. "You have to think about the client, and I felt like red was such a perfect color for her. It's such a confident color for her and it really was my first instinct."

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