Like the sartorial choices of any first lady, those of Michelle Obama ’85 make the news. Whether she bares her legs on the way to a vacation or wears a British-designed dress to a state dinner — people notice. Kate Betts ’86, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar and former fashion news director at Vogue, hones in on Obama’s style: what her approach to fashion says about her role as first lady, how she has influenced American women and fashion, and how she compares to other first ladies in Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style (Clarkson Potter). Betts spoke with Katherine Federici Greenwood.
Why did you want to write this book?
I’m very interested in the difference between style and fashion and the way style plays out on the cultural stage. When Michelle went to Europe and met the Queen and the Sarkozys, I was interested to see how riveted the world was with her. This made me think this is an interesting story to see how style has played a role in her trajectory from Chicago to the White House. … And I like to look at fashion in that intersection of fashion and politics and culture.
What do you mean by “style”?
What I mean by “style” is more than what you are wearing. Style is the way you present yourself to the world, the way you speak, how you walk, how you interact with people. It’s an expression of who you are.
In the book I talk about the difference between fashion and style. Fashion to me is what is happening right in this moment but is not something that endures. It changes every three months. Whereas style is a consistent story people tell about themselves.
You write that Obama uses style to convey her message of confidence, optimism, and strength. How does she do that?
She wears what she wants to wear. She wears pretty, feminine clothes, beautiful colors and prints, and I think that gives optimism to people. That sounds trivial, but the way she projects a sense of confidence and optimism in her clothing alone is powerful. When you look at someone like Laura Bush, who did just as much as any other lady in the White House in terms of her causes and what she fought for, she had a very demure, quiet sense of style. It didn’t bring a lot of confidence to bear on that position.
Why do Americans seem to care so much about what Michelle Obama or any other first lady wears?
It’s a projection of who we are, and it’s a reflection of who we are. We look at ourselves through that prism. When I interviewed European designers who dress Michelle and have never met the Obamas, a lot of them were saying that the Obamas give them a sense of hope and optimism about America, and just looking at their faces and a picture of them, they seem to open up America to the world again. And I think women want her image to be a reflection of how we as women feel about ourselves.
How has Michelle Obama influenced American women?
Her story is so relatable and so much a story of our times. Like Michelle, many women are balancing work and family. Many women have worked hard to get to career positions and have kids at the same time and have struggled with that. Hillary Clinton was also a working mom, but for some reason at that time women weren’t ready to have that frank conversation about whether or not you could have it all. … Michelle is the post-feminist icon. She said you can’t have it all, you have to figure out some sort of balance, and maybe you have to give something up at a certain point. In a lot of ways that’s a big relief for women. I know it is for me. … And the fact that she does it with such style and such grace and confidence is pretty inspiring, too.
You also compare her style to that of other first ladies. Where does she fit in that lineage?
In the book I trace two paths that first ladies have chosen – one being the path of style. When I say “path” I mean that’s what they chose to emphasize. That’s the medium they decided to communicate through. That started early on with Dolly Madison and went right up through Jackie Kennedy and now Michelle. And the other path is the substance path, which is what Eleanor Roosevelt did, and people like Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton took their cues from Roosevelt.
But what we see with Michelle is Hillary Clinton’s mind dressed in Jackie’s clothes. She kind of embodies both of those. And she’s really the first first lady to do that. She’s incredibly substantive. She’s used her brain to get her where she’s gotten and yet she also has used style in the same way. In the history of the White House it’s always been one or the other because culture won’t accept style and substance occupying the same world. Michelle is changing that perception and I think that’s what’s upsetting to people about her – they can’t categorize her.