Naturally, the big news of Inauguration Day was... Michelle Obama's outfits.
My own memory of "what's she wearing" as a conversation about the Inauguration begins with Nancy Reagan (I think we all thought Rosalynn Carter was quite acceptable). Mrs. Reagan wore a hat (this was 1980, and even then, hats were pretty much out), and it was reminiscent of Mrs. Kennedy... in that too reminiscent way Mrs. Reagan had of wanting to be a Jackie... and it got kind of panned. Then she showed up at the Inaugural Balls in an elaborate - and expensive - Galanos gown that also raised eyebrows (in retrospect, that gown, a one shoulder number in white and silver, was pretty much a winner).
In the interim, the media has realized that fashion doesn't just belong on the Women's pages - or the "Style" pages, if you prefer - and they've given today's fashion writers wide latitude to become political commentators on the uses of fashion (much the way TV critics suddenly become experts on news coverage for these sorts of things).
For the historic moment when she became this country's first African American first lady, Obama chose a lemon-grass yellow, metallic sheath with a matching coat by the Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo. The dress followed her curves -- paying special attention to the hips -- and announced that the era of first lady-as-rectangle had ended. It signaled a generational shift in what women could be on the national stage. They could boldly embrace color and reveal their power, their femininity and their legs.
I personally love how revelatory the paragraph is in Givhan's blinkered notion of fashion feminism: the powerful "generational shift" of women embracing their bodies means... you Leg Men can now rejoice!
Of course, not to be outdone, the New York Times offered us Cathy Horyn, who can at least be considered better anchored to actually knowing fashion and writing about it semi-coherently. Still, even she managed a doozy:
I think she meant that nicely.
Fashion writing, really is difficult; and rarely is it more difficult than in describing the style of an individual. And the deceptive thing is when a woman has great personal style, it can seem easy to describe: the striking style Katharine Hepburn showed in the thirties; the perfectly styled ensembles of Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor; and of course, Jackie Kennedy. It's harder when the style cues are not immediately apparent, and I think it's especially hard in these modern days when personal style - truly definitive style - is an absolute rarity.
That's not to knock Mrs. Obama. I think she's the real thing, and I think, in the long run, she really will turn out to be a striking First Lady, especially as she seems to have softened the overly self-conscious adoption of Mrs. Kennedy's style, and made the suggestion of it her own. That said, I think Tuesday's outfits showed her able to fall into some obvious pitfalls, not the least of which is overthinking her choices on the Big Statement occasions. For whatever reason, the day outfit by Isabel Toledo was good, but not great. No one thing stands out... but just the general sense that she could have done better. And the Jason Wu evening dress, I have to agree (even Horyn chides her) was too busy, cut her badly at the waist, and was over embellished. As her day outfit showed, Mrs. Obama has a great figure for sheaths... why not keep her evening look simpler (a solid shade) and sheathed?
But back to the commentary - Givhan, I think, is a lost cause. Better, I think, to let her twirl away until the Post wises up and either moves on or - more wisely - abandons the ludicrous idea of a "politics" of fashion. Horyn, I think, ought to know better and try harder. Although this general failing she has in talking about personal style speaks a lot to the weaknesses in the Times coverage of fashion generally. I mention that because recently Horyn took time out to ask "whither Vogue?" in the economic downturn, speculating that Anna Wintour was now out of touch with these somber economic times. Not to put too fine a point on it - Horyn's right that loss of luxury advertising will mean serious problems at Conde Nast generally and Vogue especially - butt if Horyn wants to fix a magazine, she might try fixing her own - The Times' dreadful biannual Fashion issues, now called T the Magazine, and generally horrible. Horyn complains about Wintour's dull covers with a rotating cast of familiar celebrities... as opposed to Horyn's picks of... a rotating set of familiar celebrities on the cover of T.
In that sense Mrs. Obama, more than the President, may be a real gift to the economy: by showing a real-world approach to dressing, mixing inexpensive pieces with some higher end ones, Mrs. Obama can give fashion's remaining designers (the industry is in a bloodbath of failing houses just now) a hook for their clothes that can translate into real sales. All of that especially crucial right now. The bigger problem for fashion magazines and newspapers covering fashion is how to talk to this new reality. the quasi-bitchy, backhanded complimenting, and arguably unfeminist approach to talking about Mrs. Obama's clothes is really a holdover of... well, the catty way we talk about Republicans like Mrs. Reagan or Laura Bush (who, let it be said, looked glorious on Tuesday in soft gray). The Inaugural fashion coverage shows how far they still have to go to catch up to the times - this is not your mother's fashion show... and it doesn't need your mother's fashion police.