Michelle Obama and McQueenGate

Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg and the entire Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) are wicked mad at the First Lady Fashionista In Chief, because she wore this unbelievable Alexander McQueen dress to the state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao. de la Renta told WWD: “My understanding is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade — American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why do you wear European clothes?” And CFDA backed him up with this official statement (via Fashionista):

CFDA believes in promoting American fashion. Our First Lady Michelle Obama has been wonderful at promoting our designers, so we were surprised and a little disappointed not to be represented for this major state dinner.

Color me conflicted. On the one hand, I see their point: The Cut reports that “a study published in the Harvard Business Review placed an estimated value on the public appearances Michelle made wearing clothing from November 2008 to December 2009 at $2.7 billion.” J. Crew is basically ready to submit her for sainthood because she and her daughters look so gosh-darn adorable in their twinsets and frilly blouses. And with Obama’s State of the Union revolving around how Americans need to out-innovate everyone else to build our future, wearing American-made clothes does seem like a great way to stay on message.

But. Two things.

1) “American brand” does not necessarily equate American-made: J. Crew clothing is largely manufactured in Italy and China. And many CFDA members like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein rely on sweatshop labor in far-flung places to make their clothing on the cheap. I’d be a heck of a lot more excited if Obama decided to use her wardrobe to support American brands who manufacture in the United States and/or follow fair trade practices when they employ foreign factories to ensure all of their workers are treated well and paid a living wage. Of course then she’d be in trouble for walking around naked most of the time.

2) I’m just not convinced that being First Lady means your body (and the clothes you put on it) has to become public property in this way. Personal style is personal and Obama is obviously someone who gets a great deal of pleasure out of fashion and understands it’s power as a form of personal expression. Why on earth shouldn’t she wear the McQueen dress if she just rillyrilly loved it? It’s freaking fantastic. I would be so very grouchy if I had to follow some arbitrary rule like “only American designers” to the point where I no longer felt like my clothes represented who I am.

I admit this is a gray area, since, whether by accident or by design, people do emulate her style in a way that translates to fashion’s bottom line in a big way. The Cut even keeps a Michelle Obama Look Book, tracking everything she wears pretty much every day, so you can run right out and buy the very same bicep-flaunting sheath dress. So I get why Obama choosing American designers is good for the American fashion industry. But until they get a whole lot better about business practices that are good for people everywhere, I’m not convinced Obama should trade her right to personal style for a patriotic uniform.

[Photo via Fashionista]

Filed under Beauty Labor, Happenings

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  1. Posted January 27, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Maybe people wouldn’t think twice about it if she weren’t already wearing American brands most of the time. They have this idea in their heads “isn’t it great that she’s supporting the US fashion industry?” so that the few times that she wears something from a foreign designer people actually take notice.
    Plus she’s been portrayed as some sort of fashion icon. Did anyone bother asking what Obama himself was wearing?

    • Posted January 27, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Ah, EXCELLENT POINT. We never pay any attention to who makes a male politician’s suits, shirts or ties.

  2. Posted January 27, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Yes, great point about the male Obama. And I agree that it’s a tough issue about whether she has to “represent” the US. The idea that she must prioritize national allegiance at all times seems sort of ridiculous. Besides, where would you draw the line? Would congress have to abide as well? Supreme Court Justices? I’m also aware of the fact that it is because Michelle Obama is beautiful and young and thin that we pay attention to what she wears. If she were older, or unattractive or heavy, this surely wouldn’t be the case.

    • Posted January 27, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Ah yes. If she were older/unattractive/heavy, they’d probably be asking her not to wear American designers… That is, if she could even find clothes that fit. Sigh.

  3. Valerie
    Posted January 27, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I just think it’s complete B.S. that the First Lady is wandering around wearing designer clothes that the average American can’t afford to wear. (Seriously? 2.7 Billion? Some people can’t afford food or housing right now!) We’re in tough economic times and her style should reflect the people she represents not the cover of every celebrity slathered gossip magazine.

    In my opinion, that is in equally poor taste.

    • Posted January 27, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      To clarify: The $2.7 billion figure represents how much her wardrobe choices have boosted the business of American fashion designers — not what she actually spends on clothing. (I sincerely hope that it would not be possible for one person to spend over a billion dollars on clothes, though I could be wrong!)

      But this is still a great point. At least when she wears J. Crew, she’s representing fashion in a way that is a little more within reach of the average American. And I still think if she wants to get political about her clothes, the way to do it is to support brands who take a firm stance against sweatshop labor and other unsustainable business practices that hurt low-income families here and abroad.

  4. Posted January 27, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Great post!
    I don’t think it should be Michelle’s job to wear anything besides what she feels like wearing. Plus, it’s slightly insulting to be like, “The president must represent all that is right with America, and guide our nation and the nations of the world towards a bright future, and his wife must…wear the right clothes.”

    Also, she isn’t the average American. She’s rich and famous. She shouldn’t have to only wear clothes “regular” people can afford. That’s just mean!

    And the McQueen dress is AWESOME.

  5. Maggie
    Posted January 28, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    3. She’s a lawyer. A LAWYER. Not a mannequin. Not a model. Remember when Dean was running and he got all kinds of flak because his wife refused to leave her job as a fricking hospital administrator just to jaunt about on the campaign trail and look pretty and wifey? She was my hero just for that.

    I wish First Ladies could be something other than First Consort.

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] hands-down best comment on last week’s “Michelle Obama and McQueengate” post came from Maggie, who said: “She’s a lawyer. A LAWYER. Not a mannequin. Not a [...]

  2. [...] comment on last week’s “Michelle Obama and McQueengate” post came from Maggie, who said: “She’s a lawyer. A LAWYER. Not a mannequin. Not a [...]

  3. By Michelle Obama’s Biggest Mistake on May 8, 2012 at 11:08 am

    [...] of this blog will know that I am usually a pretty big Michelle Obama fan. I’ve defended her right to wear un-American fashion designers, because she’s the First Lady, not First Barbie Doll. I had a whole lot of feelings when [...]

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