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.