The mainstream media’s seemingly endless barrage of banality with regard to First Lady fashion continues in the latest of a long string of articles devoted to dissecting the style choices of First Ladies past and present (in this case, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama). To read this article, one would think that Michelle Obama’s choice of gown for the upcoming Inaugural Ball was actually a key policy issue worthy of the review of an emergency lame duck session of Congress (or at least an audience vote on Dancing With the Stars). The thing is, if Michelle Obama loves clothes, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m not saying she shouldn’t. I just don’t understand why it was newsworthy in the first place, let alone after dozens if not hundreds of articles have meticulously dissected every fashion choice this woman makes, drawing sweeping sociological, psychological, and political conclusions from the color of a dress or the shape of a neckline.
This particular article quotes Mandi Norwood, former editor in chief of Shop Etc., who is now writing a style guide directed at Michelle Obama. Ms. Norwood says, “Most previous first ladies have appeared to believe that displaying an interest in fashion and style undermines the importance of their role. They’ve subscribed to the old-fashioned view that a woman should de-sexualize herself or dress like a man if she wants to be regarded as intelligent and of good conscience.” While I know looks and fashion can be a double-edged sword for women in the way Norwood is describing, she seems to discount another obvious possibility–maybe some of them just don’t care that much about it. Sure, Hillary Clinton definitely toned down her femininity while running for President, but as First Lady, it seems to me that her style choices were mostly not very premeditated–she just had other priorities. And the thing is, there should be nothing wrong with either Hillary Clinton’s lack of interest in fashion or Michelle Obama’s apparent love of it. Norwood’s comments almost seem to hint that any woman who doesn’t embrace fashion must be purposefully denying her womanhood and sexuality out of some old fashioned sensibility about roles for women. It’s pretty ludicrous to suggest that Hillary Clinton of all people, a woman who came pretty close to being President and is about to be named Secretary of State, is mired in antiquated ideas about gender roles.
As much as I believe that it’s perfectly fine for a strong, modern woman to be interested in fashion like Michelle Obama, I also think it’s equally fine for a strong, modern woman not to be, without people suggesting that she’s trying to deny her womanhood or desexualize herself. That’s what real empowerment is about–choices, and embracing the reality that womanhood and femininity are not monolithic concepts.