Is anyone else besides Michelle Obama leaving the house these days? Because for the last week, you would have thought that Anne Hathaway, Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry had gone into the Witness Protection Program.
During first lady Michelle Obama’s whirlwind visit to Europe this past week, her refreshing take on American style has emerged. It is elegant, smart, appropriate and shows the first lady to be comfortable in her own skin. Coverage surrounding the first lady’s wardrobe in Europe, from cardigans to kitten heels, has been relentless, riveting, fawning and, frankly, missing the objective of her strategically packed suitcase. No doubt about it, Michelle Obama scored big, looking terrific everywhere, delighting everyone — probably no one more so than Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew. But the post-game commentary sparked by each of her appearances has been hyperbolic when it hasn’t been comical. See photos of the first lady’s outfits » You would have thought each of the first lady’s “face offs,” as both American and British tabloids labeled her meetings with Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s first lady Sarah Brown, and France’s Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, had been deliberately set up as counter-programming to C-SPAN’s coverage of the budget negotiations in Congress. Watch Michelle Obama wow the world » One wire service reporter asked me if Michelle, wearing a two-toned silk dress by Jason Wu, should have “taken a bigger fashion risk” when meeting the 83-year-old British monarch, who was all mumsy in blush pink. It was an afternoon tea, folks, not the Embassy Ball in “My Fair Lady.” Another wanted to know if I agreed that the first lady’s now-sold-out J. Crew outfit, an embellished cream cardigan and mint-green jacquard skirt, was “a little too down-market” to meet the prime minister of England’s wife, completely overlooking where the two women were headed after the photo op. Or would a bias-cut silk charmeuse dress have been a wiser choice for visiting a children’s cancer ward
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But the main event was going head-to-head with the former supermodel, pop-star first lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Except both women wound up wearing similar bow-tied coats — Mrs. Obama’s floral print number by the American designer Thakoon, and her counterpart’s, a dove-gray look by the French house of Dior. Nevertheless, Tina Brown’s TheDailyBeast.com went so far as to immediately declare the up-until-recently overtly scrutinized Mrs. Bruni-Sarkozy “over.” The citizens of France might argue the point. More importantly, the press has been missing the over-arching point of our new first lady’s wardrobe. Despite the declaration by many of the fashion community’s talking heads that she is this generation’s Jacqueline Kennedy, Michelle Obama’s approach is quite different. True, Michelle’s reception has been equally rapturous. But, Mrs. Kennedy’s transatlantic mission nearly 50 years ago was to show the world that despite America’s image of a country fueled by energy and youth, it was also one of elegance, poise and culture. In addition, whether speaking in English or French, Mrs. Kennedy purposely presented herself and her husband as children of privilege, embracing the aura of Camelot, which had cast them as American royalty. Conversely, what’s most striking about each of Mrs. Obama’s appearances is not the grandiose message, diverse labels or designers’ origins. Rather, it is their unmistakable, uniform accessibility and appropriateness. Michelle Obama looks exactly like what she is: a modern American, working woman. Her outfits appear comfortable instead of buttoned up, her impression is pretty rather than formal, her silhouette based on sportswear — the form of design that is at the heart of American fashion — not politics. Add warmth, confidence, and openness and what the world is seeing — besides someone who knows how to pack for a week — is a woman they would want to know, to embrace as a neighbor or a friend. Though I’m still having trouble getting past those kitten heels (note to Michelle: You’d look so much better in a four-inch pump. Don’t worry, your husband can handle it), what Michelle Obama has brilliantly accomplished in fairly record time is refashioning the image of Americans as relevant, approachable, relatable, and best of all, likable. When speaking to a group of school children in London, the first lady freely admitted, “I like getting A’s. I like being smart.” She sure is.