Michelle Obama‘s new book Becoming touches on many subjects, like her roots, growing up in South Side Chicago and her time at the White House. But she also gets candid about a topic current First Lady Melania Trump is often in hot water over: fashion.
Not to say that Michelle’s style has always been admired–elegant, poised and polished, the accomplished lawyer always managed to look regal during her husband President Barack Obama‘s time in office, yet she was not immune to fashion criticism.
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No, it wasn’t that she donned a jacket with a tone-deaf message, or a hat with racist histories. Instead, the uproar was about wearing dresses without sleeves (shock) and shorts on her vacation (horror). Naturally, the former First Lady had a few words about the media’s preoccupation with her style. “It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say,” she wrote.
“In London, I’d stepped offstage after having been moved to tears while speaking to the girls at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, only to learn that the first question directed to one of my staffers by a reporter had been ‘Who made her dress?’ This stuff got me down, but I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to use what power I could find inside a situation I’d never have chosen for myself. If people flipped through a magazine primarily to see the clothes I was wearing, I hoped they’d also see the military spouse standing next to me or read what I had to say about children’s health.”
As for what went behind the each carefully chosen piece of attire? “Optics governed more or less everything in the political world, and I factored this into every outfit. It required time, thought, and money—more money than I’d spent on clothing ever before. It also required careful research by Meredith (her personal aid and wardrobe stylist), particularly for foreign trips. She’d spend hours making sure the designers, colors, and styles we chose paid respect to the people and countries we visited.”
Even daughters Sasha and Malia weren’t spared from judgement–remember when GOP staffer Elizabeth Lauten criticized the then young teens for dressing like they were going to “a bar”? Despite it adding plenty to Michelle’s personal costs, stylist Meredith also shopped for the two girls, knowing that any slipups could lead to a “flurry of ridicule and nasty comments.”
Not only does Michelle credit Meredith with her painstakingly planned looks, she also thanks her hair stylist (Johnny Wright) and makeup artist (Carl Ray) for giving her confidence to face all the public scrutiny. A type of scrutiny that her husband wasn’t quite subject to. “I sighed sometimes, watching Barack pull the same dark suit out of his closet and head off to work without even needing a comb.”
“I never expected to be someone who hired others to maintain my image, and at first the idea was discomfiting. But I quickly found out a truth that no one talks about: Today, virtually every woman in public life—politicians, celebrities, you name it—has some version of Meredith, Johnny, and Carl. It’s all but a requirement, a built-in fee for our societal double standard.”
A double standard we hope won’t last much longer.