First lady Michelle Obama makes her entrance at the Home States Ball, which honored Hawaii and Illinois, in her Jason Wu gown. (By Jim Young, Reuters)
'A real departure for first ladies'
By Maria Puente and Olivia Barker, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama, an unprecedented first lady, made some unprecedented choices for her Inauguration Day apparel Tuesday, announcing herself as a self-confident style-setter willing to defy expectations.
She picked unexpected silhouettes, unusual colors and non-celebrity designers Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo.
Unlike most recent first ladies, she didn't release pictures or descriptions of her inaugural clothes in advance, apparently because she didn't make up her mind until the last moment.
By contrast, President Obama's clothes Tuesday provided no surprises: He wore a navy-blue business suit and white shirt with a red tie under a black overcoat with a flag pin. He wore a Hart Schaffner Marx tuxedo to the Inaugural Balls.
But all fashion-conscious eyes were on Michelle Obama. When she appeared at the first ball, around 8:30 p.m. ET, she was wearing a white, one-shoulder chiffon gown with a fitted bodice and covered with fluffy appliqués and beading, set off by sparkly shoulder-sweeping earrings.
"In her elegant gown, (she) sent out a message loud and clear: She is a refreshing dichotomy of change and tradition," said Joe Zee, creative director of Elle magazine.
"There's a long history of first ladies wearing white, including Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, but it's also somewhat unconventional" to wear it in winter and at night, said Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com. "It's a great night for Jason Wu, and a good night for American fashion in general."
Wu, 26, who was born in Taiwan and raised in Vancouver and Connecticut, has dressed Obama before, including a silk dress worn for an interview on a Barbara Walters special in November.
Near midnight, Wu talked by phone to CNN. He had submitted sketches, along with other designers, but had no idea Obama picked his design until she appeared at the first ball. "It's thrilling, it's emotional, it's inspiring," he said. "For a young designer, you couldn't ask for any more than this. This is my dream come true."
His vision for the dress: "I wanted it to stand for everything she and President Obama are about — hope, newness, history. I wanted it to have a dreamlike quality."
Despite his youth, "Jason is known for having a mature sensibility," says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "This gown had a very polished, ladylike quality to it. It's fancier than most ball gowns he does; he does chiffon, he does white, he does one-shoulder, but I've never seen it all together with this kind of surface texture."
The Isabel Toledo brocade sheath-dress-and-coat ensemble she wore during the day Tuesday was a distinct departure (recent first ladies have chosen skirt suits), and it was widely acclaimed.
It was an unusual gold-yellow color, sparkled a little and had a jeweled collar, and the coat closed with a ribbon at the breast. She wore leather gloves from J. Crew and Jimmy Choo patent pumps, both in a coordinating olive green color.
"It's glorious," said Mears. "It's lemongrass, a golden color, and a real departure for first ladies, who typically dress in primary colors. It's a sophisticated color for a sophisticated woman."
The outfit was designed for the cold weather, she said. The lace is layered over wool, and the pashmina lining provides warmth.
The Obamas "clearly understand the importance of symbolism as they try to inspire a nation," said Anne Slowey, fashion news director for Elle. Obama looked "fantastic," Phelps said. "It's a surprising color for her but one that seems pitch-perfect for the historic occasion."
The choice of the Cuban-born, New Jersey-raised Toledo, 47, whom Obama also has worn in the past, continued Obama's habit of supporting under-the-radar, on-the-rise American designers such as Thakoon, Maria Pinto and Maria Cornejo, Phelps said.
"This is a good indication that she'll continue to do so in the White House, which will mean so much to the fashion industry in this time of economic crisis," she said.
"In a single outfit, Mrs. O has introduced another name best known within the inner circle of fashion to the American public," added Mary Tomer, who runs admiring website Mrs-O.org, which tracks Obama's fashion choices.
There are always naysayers. Fashion tracker Bonnie Fuller reported on her Huffington Post blog that some fashion followers thought it was too dressy for daywear. One of her friends was aghast, likening it to couch upholstery.
"The style merits are definitely debatable, but what's obvious is that Michelle has made a major statement," Fuller wrote. "This is a woman who speaks through her clothing. There was nothing traditional, meek or remain-in-the-background about this outfit."
Meet the designers who dressed Michelle:Jason Wu
(Picture by Rob Loud, Getty Image for IMG)
Age: 26, born in Taiwan, raised in Vancouver and Connecticut
Based in: New York
How he got started: Designed fashion on dolls as a child; studied sculpture; attended Parsons School of Design; interned with Narciso Rodriguez; launched first line in 2006.
Michelle wore: Four dresses purchased from his spring 2009 collection, including a raw-silk dress made with hand-embroidered rosettes with French knots worn for an interview on a Barbara Walters special in November.
Celebrity fans: Ivanka Trump, Amber Valetta
Signature look: Sheath dresses, silk tweeds, hourglass dresses
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