Michelle Obama: from First Lady to style star

WASHINGTON • The December issue of Vogue arrives with United States First Lady Michelle Obama on its cover wearing a slinky white Carolina Herrera gown.

It is sleeveless. Her hair is swept back and flowing. Her make-up is perfectly natural. She is wearing a magnificent sparkly ring and a pair of Monique Pean earrings.

The backdrop offers no hint of the White House, the nation's capital or the ornate stateliness that has long attached to the occupant of the East Wing. The portrait exudes the sort of casual glamour in which Vogue specialises, but that is not typically associated with first ladies.

If there is any takeaway from the images by photographer Annie Leibovitz, it is that Mrs Obama, 52, is offering a version of herself to the public that is separate and distinct from the role she has filled for almost eight years.

The message is not brusque or without nostalgia and gratitude. But she is done. Finished. Free.

The accompanying article is a review of her time in the White House. A victory lap. It highlights her work with students, her garden and her focus on the nation's veterans.

Michelle Obama shows a different side to herself in next month's issue of Vogue.
Michelle Obama shows a different side to herself in next month's issue of Vogue. PHOTO: VOGUE

The photos in the story make plain that she is moving on from the rigours, the expectations and the limitations of the White House. She is photographed mostly in Atelier Versace, rather than American designers, which is more typical. And while she is standing or seated in various corners and porticoes of the White House, the background is more graphic than iconic.

Her hair is tousled - a little messy, even. And in one portrait, she is wearing a black Atelier Versace dress and matching jacket with a belt cinched neatly around her waist. Her legs are bare and her black pumps are by Jimmy Choo.

She is seated on a stone staircase with her hands resting against her hips and her head is thrown back as she leans against the steps. It is a posed look of quiet meditation, one with which regular readers of glossy magazines are familiar. It is part of the canon of sexy. Not in a plunging evening gown, pin-up way, but more "I might take him on a flight on my chopper, I slay".

It is impossible to imagine Mrs Obama sitting for a portrait and arching her back and looking towards the sky during the early years of the Obama administration.

Indeed, one of the first images of her in Vogue had her styled in a manner that recalled Mrs Jackie Kennedy - curled alongside her husband and her children, a strand of pearls around her neck.

The then-senator's wife had even nixed a mussed hairstyle, saying that it made her look as if she had just got out of bed.

Whether in Vogue or elsewhere, Mrs Obama's early pictures were more formal, regal or homey. They seemed aimed at reassuring an audience that she could fit into their preconceived notions about how a first lady should look, even if she happened to be African American.

As she settled into the White House, her approach to fashion was more contemporary than her predecessors and she brought her individuality and personality to her tenure as first lady.

But she kept her promise of being a caretaker of the position's traditions. She transformed the look and feel of the role, but not the essence of it, no matter how murky that essence might be.

Her successor will be freer to be more of herself rather than a two-dimensional visitor's guide version of it - if that is her choice.

These photographs speak to an exit strategy. They serve as a bridge between the symbol she has been and the woman she will become.

Mrs Obama is a celebrity. Charismatic and influential. Other portraits have tended to put that fame in the context of politics, Washington or first ladies. These pictures remove all those modifiers.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2016, with the headline 'Michelle Obama: from First Lady to style star'. Subscribe