I get that Thom Browne has done more to revolutionize menswear than any designer in the last half-century.
I get that his signature suits– with narrow lapels, jackets that fall just below beltlines and shrunken hems which leave wrists and ankle bones exposed– have been conferring instant hipster-cred upon wearers from Ginza to Williamsburg since 2001.
And I get that it was only a matter of time before women would turn to the master in search of an avant-garde aesthetic we could call our own.
But when the first lady emerged from the Capitol Building wearing a custom coat with fitted bodice and flared skirt by Browne during Monday’s presidential inauguration, my initial reaction was Does Thom Browne get Michelle Obama?
In a post-inaugural interview, the designer explained: “I kind of assumed that the President would be in navy so I wanted to do something in navy so that they looked really good together. The fabric specifically was one I was developing for my men’s collection that I just showed: a silk jacquard fabric based off an old tie. There’s a beautiful structure to the fabric.”
In fact, the Obamas did look like a match made in fashion heaven. And Michelle’s ensemble was perfectly structured. But as I watched her move throughout the day it occurred to me that FLOTUS’s greatest assets had been sabotaged by design.
While the navy jacquard was an elegant choice, I wonder what the million spectators who braved the cold for hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mrs. O– whether on the Mall or along the parade route– thought of the color choice? Might they not have preferred a pop of color to help identify her in the crowd? As it was, even I had trouble keeping my eye on Obama in the sea of black and blue hues– and that was with Rachel Maddow’s brilliant color commentary to guide me as I watched MSNBC from dawn to dusk.
Of course, the unofficial title of First Lady is as ceremonial as it is anachronistic, but inaugural parades being what they are– what purpose is served by having a figure-head blend in when she could stand out? And though Michelle Obama’s educational and career pedigree are the best argument for equality between the sexes, when it comes to special events, the last thing I want is for her to look like one of the guys.
At 5’11’, the first lady is a designer’s dream: all arms and legs. But these physical characteristics were minimized by the proportions of her coat– which appeared to compress rather than elongate Obama’s statuesque physique. Likewise, the belted high waist did little to play up her lithe torso, and the neckline did not flatter long neck.
For me, there are two hallmarks of great design– whether in architecture, interiors or clothing– and the two are diametrically opposed. First, I want the creation to take my breath away, and then I want it to disappear as it serves its purpose. The latter category is where Browne’s design left me cold, because each time Obama lifted her arms to wave to the adoring crowds, her range of motion was so severely truncated by the coat that all I could think was What’s up with those sleeves?.
To be sure, this design flaw would not have been apparent on a first lady who was more inclined to give a presidential wave– that iconic, insincere, emotionless affect that says I’d rather be home, watching the game, eating some Cheetos than here with you– than the real thing. But when the Mom-in-Chief– a woman as renown for her hugs as she is for her kitten heels– appears to be straight-jacketed by a garment, it tends to stand out.
I felt uncomfortable for Michelle as she kept having to adjust the coat– which would ride up each time she raised her arms above shoulder height. The stiff fabric seemed to dictate her expression– which left me wondering if Browne even considered his client’s personality and physicality before designing her ensemble.
Fifty years have passed since the words pizzazz and first lady could be spoken in the same sentence without a trace of irony. And while Jackie Kennedy remains the standard-bearer for unerring style during her White House years, part of Michelle Obama’s legacy will be the appropriateness of words like kinetic and dynamic to accurately describe a sitting first lady. She’s also the only person on the planet who could make the term “right to bare arms” sound benign. So why put her fabulous guns on lockdown when they might have been deployed to reinforce her typically effusive body language?
In Michelle, we have a woman who is as inclined to bend down and meet her constituents at their level…
as she is to boogie down with grade-schoolers to demonstrate the value of physical fitness.
She is the living embodiment of her signature issue Let’s Move!: whether bolting from starting lines…
or motivating her charges on receiving lines.
There is no more spirited cheerleader than MO:
whether delivering big-ups on the basketball court…
or doling out hugs on the campaign trail.
Her enthusiasm can even make something as prosaic (to non-green thumbs like me, at least) as gardening seem like an exciting pursuit.
She is the first first lady I’m aware of who is as poised in a pair of pink pumps…
…as she is in a pair of Pumas.
And whether surrounded by stars…
or clad in stripes…
the glory of love is evident in everyone she touches as she keeps it moving.
It goes without saying that I didn’t expect Thom Browne to dress the first lady in sleeveless, athletic gear for her husband’s inauguration to facilitate freedom of movement. I understand the constraints of time & place, pomp & circumstance. Moreover, the climate had to be taken into consideration as winters in DC can be bitterly cold.
But when a designer has an opportunity to catch lighting in a bottle– as did Browne with Obama– I think his responsibility is to get to know who she is, dress her in a way that will take my breath away and, then, just disappear.
Not putting Michelle Obama in a coat that was so unyielding (though beautifully crafted) through the arms and shoulders would have been an excellent first step toward that goal. And it would have freed the first lady to do what she does best: express herself.
and, always, with abandon!