Fashion as protest?

Karol Collymore

This morning when I was listening to Weekend Edition on NPR (yes, I'm a Bobo in Paradise) a story came on about Michelle Obama.  Of course I immediately stopped in my tracks to listen because the First Lady is my idol. 

Liane Hansen talked to a couple of bloggers about Mrs. Obama's image over the last few months and the conversation eventually turned to fashion.  I think Mrs. Obama's outfits are almost always perfect and I love that she mixes designer pieces with items from J. Crew and White House Black Market.  Others - specifically designer Oscar de la Renta - have problems with her choices.  Mr. de la Renta seems to think that the First Ladies of America should only wear "classic" designers.  He of course means himself and others like Bill Blass, Chanel, and Valentino.  Worse, this guy doesn't like Mrs. Obama's outfits.  I mean really, who's going to wear his taffeta nightmares? 

Instead, the First Lady chooses new and different designers like Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo.  She goes to the Gap and Ann Taylor.  This all makes me wonder, what's the point?  Can't the woman just be a style star and the stores and boutiques be damned?  Blogger Tami Harris made a point that never occured to me: Michelle Obama may be making a political - albeit silent - statement with her clothes? 

Ms. Harris said that some "classic' designers rarely, if ever, use models of color in their runway shows or print ads.  It's true that for years that designers and fashion magazines alike have been encouraged (read: arms twisted) into booking models of color.  There are still statements like, "The first Black woman to be the face of _______."  Want an example?  Check out Valentino's Spring 2009 collection.  There is one Black model in a sea of White women.  There is not a Latina, Asian or any other color represented. 

There is also the financial implications.  I mean, sure, I can afford some Christian long as it comes in the form of a tube of mascara.  On the other hand, I can rub some nickels together and go to Marshall's or Norstrom Rack and get some of her fabulous items.  I kind of like that if I met Mrs. Obama, we might be wearing the same belt.  Many of her clothes reflect the wallets of Americans, instead of the "don't put your grubby hands on my pink Chanel!" of the past.     

So I wonder, do you think Mrs. Obama might be making a tiny bit more than a fashion statement?

  • LT (unverified)

    Oscar De La Renta was born roughly a quarter century before I was, and I am over 60! Michelle Obama is to early 21st century fashion what Jackie Kennedy was to those of us who were in high school when JFK was president.

    Apparently some of these designers can't cope with the fact that a young First Lady sets her own style and doesn't listen to them.

    Tough luck---they need to understand generational change!

    Michelle Obama never made any secret of the fact that she intended to support the work of young American designers (unlike those trained in Europe) and mix those clothes with clothes ordinary women could relate to, like the J Crew ensamble she wore onto one of the late night TV shows.

    I think this complaint is less about Mrs. Obama than about "the world has changed and left us behind" complaints.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    We can hope. Seems reasonable. Since most people judge others by what they look like, it takes some courage, too.

    There's a reason why models of color should have greater representation than would be normal by demographics. They're natural experts at the masses making judgements about who you are based on how you look. Handling that is a plus on the catwalk.

    Also, fashion is essentially protest, anyway. In nature, ones appearance, to a primate, is about impressing a mate. Not much changes until the enlightenment and the first women begin to question their role and value apart from looking good. Simply turning your back on it all is too big a step though, so I think fashion came about as a kind of surrogate mate. You're not dressing only for him/her, but for fashion, with yourself as critic. It lets people experiment with doing something that's different from what a mate would command.

    At least it explains those "chiffon nightmares", and men's irritating habit of asking, whenever their wife gets dressed up for something the husband isn't attending, why she's getting dressed up. The line that best expresses not getting it; "Why are you dressing up? 'Nobody' is going to see you." When 'nobody' is everybody, that's a kind of bully pulpit, too.

    Thank you for discussing this without mentioning the wife of a former President that spoke with a Boston accent or the metaphorical name used to refer to the White House, during that era.

  • Tehanu (unverified)

    It may be recession-related. Imagine the screaming if she wore expensive designer clothing all the time. I think she looks fabulous.

  • rw (unverified)

    Yes, Karol, and no NATIVE AMERICANS either.... yep.

  • rw (unverified)

    And what if Michelle ends up not being the dream advocate we project upon her, but, rather, a woman who is comfortable in her style and intending to stay that way? IT would be great if she was NOT loading the question of what she wears with the politics we clearly feel; it would be wonderful for us if she were simply a woman comfy in her skin! And engaged, busy about thoughts and living, and showing it can be done.

    It will be so interesting to see if we are allowed to engage the actual psychodynamic of her or if we will all continue to speculate and project our dreams, our hurts, our wishes and hopes onto her?

    She's a fantastic cipher at this time!

  • Victoria the bags lady (unverified)

    She's great with her fashion. She has her own style and maybe that's what irritates fashion designers like dela Renta. They want her to follow their forecasted fashion trends.

  • Joanne Rigutto (unverified)

    I have to agree with what RW said about Michelle maybe being comfortable in her own skin. Also, maybe the big name high muckety muck designers have been hoisted on their own petard? Not only have they not used models of color, but they haven't been marketing to that customer base. If you don't market to a customer base, you shouldn't be complaining when they don't buy your products.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    At the White House Correspondents' dinner, the Prez remarked that Michelle had "the right to bare arms".

  • amm (unverified)

    Doir is a male, French yes but still male.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    I stand for the "right to bare arms."

  • Mitchell (unverified)

    Who cares about the First lady's fashion? Its petty to attack her style and who cares about whether it's awesome or not? It's not news. I would label it as something more akin to celebrity gossip, which belongs in "People" and not in the news.

  • mamabigdog (unverified)

    the First Lady has been a position that makes statements with fashion clear back to Dolley Madison's time. Michelle is no different. The only "rule" that they're truly supposed to follow in the post-Reagan era is to use American designers.

    Michelle is a modern woman, and she understands that her style and her design choices DO make a statement. That she makes an effort to choose designers that are more inclusive than most is a start. Of course, when designers start making clothes for the rest of the population over a size 8, then we can really say we've come a long way. You may get one black, one Asian or one hispanic model on the runway, but you'll never see a truly plus-size girl up there. We have money too, designers. You're really missing out.

  • rw (unverified)

    Hey MBD -- and no Native American models either, huh.

  • Joe White (unverified)

    Karol wrote:

    "Michelle Obama may be making a political - albeit silent - statement with her clothes?

    Ms. Harris said that some "classic' designers rarely, if ever, use models of color in their runway shows or print ads."

    Is absolutely everything about race? Get over yourselves.

    How sad to take something wonderful like femininity and turn it into a quota system.

    Should I ask: Why did FUBU not major on clothes for whites? Isn't that discriminatory?

    I would be glad for more 'silent statements' on this topic. The less phony posturing I hear about this, the better.

    Let people hire who they want (including models) regardless of color without being accused of being racist.

  • (Show?)

    Joe White,

    Not absolutely everything is exclusively about race, but given the pervasiveness of race in the formation of our social structure and culture, most stuff has racial dimensions, if not causally then expressively or reflectively.

    It seems quite likely to me that the hiring practices of the "classic" designers are regardful of color. As I understood the quote, the implication is that you don't find the same pattern or distribution of models among smaller, newer designers -- they are the ones who are being "regardless" of color.

    There may be a class dimension here, with "classic" high-end designers assuming, given the distribution of wealth, that their customers will be disproportionately white, and making the calculation that the loss of part of the "of color" market is outweighed by the gain.

    It points at an interesting tension among roles of a model -- they are supposed to make the designs look good, but also to give prospective buyers some idea if the clothes would look good on them, according to their tastes. Race-as-skin-color raises interesting questions about designers' choices -- do they use a range of colors that can work with different skin tones? This is a question within as well as across "racial" categories, of course.

    The body size issues raised by mamabigdog may well be more intractable in terms of designers' self-conceptions and design ideas -- they look for models who look like sketches. On the other hand, given the huge proportion of people in the U.S. who are categorized as overweight or obese in health-related epidemiological terms, there have got to be some smart entrepreneurial designers out there who will think about what will look good to and on heavier women (and men).

  • rw (unverified)

    Joe, are you "White"? You are forgiven for being out of touch with some of the throwness issues that are experienced by people of colour, most particularly women and little girls, judged so intensely and mitochondrially on their looks. Well beyond what a man is scrutinized for.

    I agree I nearly did not want to enter the "fashion" babble, and some of my point was indeed that Karol's observation was a little ... ummm... projection and fantasy, it's a chance to learn more about what the first lady means to her than anything really meaningful about the first lady.

    And that in itself is really valuable. Are you people inte5rested in listening to each other on the most common human level? That is how this will get solved. Not by pointing at some gorgeous red-hot couple of very intelligent yummies we have elected (tho I am enjoying that part too) - it's going to be by listening to the projective storytelling every person in the US is now busily indulging. It tells everything about us - hopes, dreams, hurts and longterm scars.

    Silly posts like this one, choosing the easy thing to politicize, the social-gender-agenda piece, so to speak... is a perfect entree into some meaningful and self-exploring time spent finding out just what is going on in the collective American psyche.

    I notice that as usual, BO ppl mostly talk colour. What about fat ladies like me, and old ladies, and incontinent people who want to look dishy? Can we consent to stop all this colour-only discussion and try on some other interesting angles along the way?

    It could be a lot of fun!!

  • rw (unverified)

    Chris, that was an evocative point viz the selection of angular models who are unreal looking. I'm an artist and, idiot me, I'd never considered that these artists are indeed seeking women who are not merely viscerae wrapped in meat and water; they are looking for the art on the page, transliterated.

    We ascribe all kinds of petty bourgeous gobbitch to these folks (deservedly in terms of behaviour, media profile and all), but we stolidly forget that they ARE artists too. There is a creative process.

    Believe me, you all would probably just HATE Oscar Wilde had you to encounter the man in the lecherous, brilliant, irritating flesh.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Believe me, you all would probably just HATE Oscar Wilde had you to encounter the man in the lecherous, brilliant, irritating flesh.

    Though I would admire his yellow pantaloons!

    rw- I'm shocked. I pass the baton.

  • karen (unverified)

    I love vintage clothing, finding one of pieces of clothing that no one has is such a great feeling, just because no one will be wearing it, only you.

    I have been buying vintage clothing from ebay a lot and found this ebay store called vintagefreakclothing -

    Anything vintage and retro is there, from peacoats to vintage t-shirts.

    They also have a facebook group called vintage freak clothing, check that out aswell because they have some funny videos and prize draws happening every week, something called FREAK of the week.

    There slogan is


  • Joe White (unverified)

    Chris wrote:

    "Not absolutely everything is exclusively about race....."

    It certainly seems to be.

    In the era of Barry, everything is all about race.

    Obama's infamous rant regarding 'people cling to their guns and their religion AND THEIR ANTIPATHY TO PEOPLE WHO ARENT LIKE THEM' is an accusation of racism if ever there was one.

    If you didn't vote for Obama you were just a racist that's all.

    He even trashed his own grandmother as a 'typical white person' who regurgitated racist stereotypes.

    His use of 'Minister' Joseph Lowery at his swearing-in subjected the nation to one of the most racist 'prayers' I've ever had the displeasure of hearing. Of course, since Obama and his wife and daughters sat thru many years of Jeremiah Wright's race baiting, I shouldn't have been surprised on that one.

    His new attorney general scolded us as 'cowards' for not treating the issue of race properly, in his holier-than-thou opinion.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Fashion and style are different things. Fashion is a top-down dictate by elites. Style is based on individual imagination. The best style comes from a combination of limited resources and active imagination.

  • rw (unverified)

    Good one, Gil. Good one.

  • rw (unverified)

    Dear Zara -- believe me there is so much more to me than is drawn out here in this venue. Thank you for responding to it! :).... the new me returning to a part of the REAL old me.


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