Michelle Obama and the Cost of Fashion

by Renee Martin

Michelle Obama has to walk a tight rope that often makes me wonder how she manages without stumbling.  Being in the public view means that what she chooses to wear is constantly a topic of conversation.  The power of her fashion choices can launch a career — as Jason Wu, who designed her inaugural gown, knows firsthand.   Mrs. Obama also has been the gift that keeps on giving to J Crew. According to ABC News, “When Obama appeared on The Tonight Show in 2008 and told Jay Leno that her yellow sweater, skirt, and blouse were a “J.Crew ensemble,” the company’s stock went up 8.2 percent.” Banana Republic, as well as H&M, has also experienced positive results due specifically to Mrs. Obama’s patronage.

Clearly the numbers spoke for themselves, but in June, author Elizabeth Cline suggested that  Mrs. Obama was not the godsend to the fashion industry, which she had been declared by so many.

“I think it’s ridiculous that she’s always lauded as this example of democratic fashion or that she’s so American because her fashion is accessible,” Cline told Huffington Post. “The reality is that the garment and textile trade has been a dying industry for the last 10 years. So why are we so excited when we see our first lady in cheap, imported clothes?”

For the larger public, the reality is that most clothing today is mass-produced and made on foreign soil. This happens because manufacturers want cheap labor and to escape North American labor laws. Short of shopping at second-hand stores, it is nearly impossible to find clothing that is made in North America, though the company itself may be a North American company.  The best one can hope to do is to avoid purchasing items from a company known to utilize sweatshops.  Even with that said, it is worth noting that though sweatshops are deemed something that happens in so-called third world countries, many of the larger cities throughout North America are home to hundreds of them.

The problem is about so much more than what Mrs. Obama chooses to wear.  Though she may be one of the most powerful women in the world, like everyone else, she must make her purchases within an uneven global economic market.  Everyday items are made through slave labor or manufactured in a system that essentially impoverishes the producers.  Everything from coffee to sugar, bananas, chocolate, potatoes, and flowers can reasonably be argued to be products that should be avoided because of how they are produced or the tariffs placed on imports. When you have small countries who cannot afford to subsidize in the same manner as the U.S., there is no hope of having fair trade, let alone working practices which do not produce neo-slavery for the purposes of consumption.

At the Head of State and Government Reception at Buckingham Palace for the Olympics Opening Ceremony, Mrs. Obama wore a J. Mendel Resort 2013 jacket with a white pleated skirt.  She looked absolutely stunning, but an issue quickly arose when it was reported that the J. Mendel Resort jacket cost a whopping, 6,800 dollars.  To be clear, Mrs. Obama was representing the American people on an international stage and was in the presence of the Queen of England, yet the concern was what she wore? Would it have been preferable for her to show up wearing a cheap dress from Target?

Even when Mrs. Obama wears haute couture, instead of J Crew, she simply cannot win.  This is about holding her accountable for the current manner in which clothing is produced, which she did not create and most certainly does not control.  It’s about taking any opportunity possible to criticize the First Lady. Interestingly enough, the Nike swirl has had a ubiquitous presence at the game, though Adidas is the official sponsor.  Nike has a long history of sweatshop labor, but I suppose when it’s in the interests of sponsoring the exorbitant price (a tally which includes the price of training) of the Olympic Games, taking advantage of the poor is no big deal.  This just goes to show you how subjective the conversations are regarding apparel.

Even as the criticism continues to roll in about Mrs. Obama’s fashion choices, critics are loath to acknowledge the gendered nature of this conversation. Women in positions of power, or who have massive social influence, are constantly reduced to what it is they are wearing.  During her tenure as the First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, was reduced to a clothes horse, though she is a musician and a former model.  In every meeting between Mrs. Obama and Carla Bruni there was a large media build up regarding who would win the fashion war, as though being appropriate eye candy is all that either women had to contribute.

Who could forget the heat that then vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin received for spending $150,000 to outfit herself and her family for the 2008 campaign?  More recently, the spotlight fell on Ann Romney, when she chose to wear a $990 dollar t-shirt to an interview with CBS, This Morning.  Romney’s choice of apparel was declared a symbol of her inability to relate to the average American.

Only what women spend on clothing is analyzed to death and no one talks about the economics behind what they wear.  There is no acknowledgement that women already pay more for basic things like haircuts, let alone clothing, or the different appearance standards between men and women.  Time is barely spent on which designer a man chooses to wear, let alone the price of the suit or tux.  In the case of Michelle Obama, this is further problematized by the fact that not only is she a woman, she’s a black woman.  Even those who falsely believe that they don’t have a racist bone in their body are loath to admit that they don’t believe that a black woman should have anything nice.  They would rather see us dressed like video vixens to fuel their sense of entitlement.

  • edub

    “They would rather see us dressed like video vixens to fuel their sense of entitlement.”
    I truly do not understand this sentence. By seeing us dressed like video vixens they feel entitled to…what? Did you mean superiority? If not, can you explain?

  • Jbell

    @edub OBVIOUSLY that’s what she meant. Many white people would want us to “play our role” or “stay in our lane” and not be in high positions of power or influence, let alone in the White House.

  • edub

    Simmer down. There is no need for the attitude so please check yourself. It was not OBVIOUS to me therefore I asked for clarification. Thank you for your vantage point, however.
    *Passes Jbell a coffee*

  • African Mami

    If the FLOTUS so chooses to wear an outfit dripping in gold, let her! She doesn’t have to wear tatters to reflect the economic reality of the country. That would be so pretentious, obviously we know her income isn’t in the let’s go #Occupy Wall Street level! May the good Lord bless this woman and her husband whose diplomatic tact never ceases to amaze me! I’d have given ya’ll the finger, and probably had the hubby ousted.

  • http://itsoftenbeensaid.wordpress.com Sasha

    Can you hand me a chai tea while you’re at it? Not the chilled beverage but a hot steaming mug…this morning has been awful.

    On topic though: For every postive statement made about Michelle, trust and believe there are people ready to offer 20 negative ones in place.

  • Garry e shepard

    Media has nothing better to do so what if she spend money like that ya mad cause you can’t spend like that and as far as these sweat shops and cheap labor goes that’s been happening for years so that part shoulda been left out. You people are just racist get over it Ms Obama is living it up quit being hater a and get a life

  • Paul

    Being in the public view means that what she chooses to wear is constantly a topic of conversation</b

    Who says?

    You and all the media propaganda outlets that make mind numbing trivia like this an issue.

    And don't bring men into this mess, I've never heard a man comment on the attire of a politician's wife. It's just mainstream and small stream outfits like this one which seem to think the dress sense of politician wives is important to somebody.

    Furthermore, if mrs obama had done something NOTABLE in her own right, other than be obama's wife. she might well indeed be a worthy topic of conversation

    However mrs obama and her dress sense are about as relevent to the lives and experience of the masses of black women as the catholic pope is to the cause of alleviating developing world poverty.

  • The Comment

    FLOTUS is flawless. A real representation of how to handle the haters on a daily basis using grace and charm–two attributes that just make those inferior in intellect and pose mad as hell.

  • edub

    *Hands Sasha a Chai Tea*
    I put some sugar packets in the bag–just in case.

  • simplyme

    “Furthermore, if mrs obama had done something NOTABLE in her own right, other than be obama’s wife. she might well indeed be a worthy topic of conversation ”

    lol lol lol way to invalidate your entire comment. do your research.

  • Stace

    Hmm what did they want her to wear to represent her country at a state dinner with the Monarchy of the UK ….jeans and a tshirt… For crying out loud!!!

  • andryce

    No one seemed to care or even comment on the cost of Hillary Clintons or Laura Bush’s clothes when they were first lady.
    When FLOTUS wears something expensive they act like she doesn’t deserve to wear it
    The woman has been an attorney/executive for the past 23 years and im sure she isn’t a stranger to expensive clothes. Is it really that serious?

  • entro

    Mrs Obama was a success in her own right, even more than her husband. You really need to get a clue

  • edub

    Nobody was checking for Hillary or Laura! Michelle Obama is actually quite attractive and looks damn good in her clothes for the most part–see her outfit at the kids choice awards for a prime example. NO first lady in recent history could have pulled that off.

    I don’t understand the fuss about her clothing and agree with your sentiments.

  • Paul


    haven’t been able to find any NOTEWORTHY deed by Michelle Obama.

    btw – going to harvard and working for a law firm aint the kind of thing I’m talking about. The only beneficiary of those deeds was Michelle Obama.

    What has Michelle Obama done in her own right that makes her serious force in politics?

    Answers on a stamp or something much smaller (if you can’t fill out a stamp) will be acceptable.

  • http://gravatar.com/pocketsizednegro Courtney**

    Moving the goalposts. She has to be a success IN POLITICS? Uh… why? Does every spouse of a politician have to be a politician? Miss me with that inane reasoning.

    We get it, Paul. You really hate the first lady and think she’s a welfare queen, living on the public dole while contributing nothing of her own to society. That meme totally hasn’t been done to death already, why don’t give it another go?

  • http://gravatar.com/pocketsizednegro Courtney**

    **why don’t YOU give it another go

  • Dee

    This such a non-issue and not a big deal! The more you give rise to this superficial stuff the more it keeps appearing as a topic. What next Gabby’s hair?? Lighten up!

  • NancyP

    Too bad custom design/ custom dressmaking / custom tailoring is not common in the US. FLOTUS did a good thing when she chose a young American designer to make her Inaugural gown. It would be very nice if she commissioned more clothing from American designers.
    I would guess that the cost of the outfit is about average for meeting the Queen. All those named to knighthood in the annual Queen’s list wear specialized clothing for the presentation.

  • http://theogk.wordpress.com Kelly Hawkins

    In the words of 2 Chainz, “I’m riding around and I’m getting it. It’s MINE, I spend it!”

  • http://gravatar.com/alm247 ALM

    First Lady Obama looks amazing as usual. :)

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