Michelle "Bests" Jackie In Made-Up Style War

Illustration for article titled Michelle "Bests" Jackie In Made-Up Style War

Having momentarily exhausted us the subject of Michelle Obama's "style," pundits have been forced to concoct a sartorial rivalry: between Michelle and Jackie Kennedy.


Look, fashion critic Mandi Norwood is well within her rights if she wants to write a book called Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion a mere six months into the administration; people will probably buy it, too. (Having attended an excrutiating lecture in which the audience and a bunch of designers looked a slide show of outfits we'd already seen, and struggled for new things to say about them, I probably won't.) And Politico can certainly, if they like, ask the question that was on nobody's mind: "But is it enough to best the last, truly glamorous first lady - Jackie Kennedy?"

Since it's obviously a competition between two women, one dead, living in completely different eras - Vanity Fair even lets you vote in a poll on who dresses better! - Norwood gamely weighs in.

"Jackie O, despite the fact that she genuinely was a style icon
and she broke many barriers in terms of being fashion forward, her clothing and her style was really very elite. There were very few people on a street level who could look at the outfit that Jackie Kennedy actually wore and rush out and by them. ... There are elements of [Michelle]'s style that make us feel close to her, that make her feel approachable and accessible."

This sort of silliness jazzes up interviews and pages, but it points to a larger fixation on comparing Mrs. Obama to Jackie ("the comparisons are inevitable," insists VF) that is somewhat bizarre (and not merely because Camelot owes a lot of its mystique to its tragedy.) Without wishing to be drawn into the "debate" I'm going to step in and say that this is simply unfair: it's impossible to compare an era rife with a range of ready-to-wear with one in which it was just taking hold. And to say Jackie's look was unattainable; well, what about the fact that she single-handedly created the defining look of her day? What about the raft of suits, pillboxes, Jackie hairdos she inspired? Maybe Mrs. Kennedy didn't shop off the rack - as wealthy women did not - and knockoffs weren't as instantaneous in the early 60s, but within a few months, her admirers most certainly could rush out and buy an approximation. And is an icon "accessible?" Maybe by definition, no - like runway fashion, Mrs. Kennedy's original couture was aspirational, at least a part of its appeal. And the irony of this whole idiocy is that Mrs. Obama would surely be the first to acknowledge the style debt she owes to Jackie!

And if it were a contest - which it's not, for all kinds of very obvious reasons - well, why not let Jackie Kennedy win? Because Jackie Kennedy did not have a problem being defined as a First Lady of Style. She lived in a time when her role was limited and she played that role beautifully, with charm and grace and inspiring elan. Jackie Kennedy was a style icon who created an original look forever associated with her, and changed how America dressed. Maybe ten women in modern sartorial history can claim this, and I'd be very surprised if this were one of Mrs. Obama's ambitions. As she recently said on NBC, "No, I would have never anticipated at any point in my life that my choice of sweaters or shoes would matter at all." Michelle Obama is an accomplished woman who dresses well and is taking full, good advantage of her influence and her access, as she should. She's helping fashion take its place in the life of an intelligent professional woman. She's also expanding the world - and the fashion world's - narrow view of who can, and does, embody modern style. Lots of very intelligent people have explored very ably the dangers of reducing Mrs. Obama to a walking clotheshorse, and while no one faults people's natural interest, her style, her influence with regard to small designers, the concern has always been that this serves to diminish her. Let Jackie have the glamour mantle. In time, Michelle can be the more influential First Lady.

Michelle Obama bests Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for one fashion critic [Politico]

Michelle O. talks "fashion" [Politico]
Michelle's Secret Weapon [Daily Beast]

Jackie and Michelle: The White House Wardrobes [Vanity Fair]


In truth, Jackie became quite the philanthropist too in later years. She was more than just a clothes horse herself.