Hey, did you hear? Michelle Obama shops at J. Crew! And online, too! And she pays for her own clothes!
Wow. She. Is. So. Normal!
At least, that’s what the AP would have us take away from Obama’s appearance—during which she discussed much more than clothing—on The Tonight Show yesterday evening. Here’s the lede of the outlet’s widely picked-up summary of the appearance, helpfully headlined “Michelle Obama shops at J. Crew, buys online”:
No $150,000 wardrobe malfunctions for Michelle Obama.
“Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble,” the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told comedian Jay Leno on Monday on his talk show. She wore a yellow sweater, skirt and blouse ensemble.
“You can get some good stuff online,” she added.
Okay, so, clearly we have clothing on the brain right now. Most in the media are ready for this long, rather painful campaign just to be over with, already, and chatting about fashion and other frivolities is a frothy little distraction from our collective frustration. There comes a point when even the most information-hungry news consumer would choose US Weekly over The Week. So, you know, fair enough.
At the same time, though, the extent to which her clothing choices have dominated the media conversation about Obama is rather remarkable. We know, at this point, about Michelle’s fondness for sleeveless tops. We’re aware of her dislike for pantyhose. And of her preference for ballet flats. And of her affinity for Jackie-esque pearls. And of her in-many-ways-symbolic appreciation for the color purple. And how, for special occasions, she likes floral frocks from the Thailand-born designer Thakoon. And how, for normal occasions, she dresses her girls in clothing from the Gap and Limited Too and Target. And how, for herself, she shops at White House/Black Market, mainstay of strip malls the country over. And, now, how she shops—online!—at J. Crew.
Which is, on the one hand, all well and good. First Ladies, for better or worse, have always been looked to as national fashion ambassadors, and there’s nothing wrong, really, with noting Michelle’s style choices. But, um, within reason. As with everything else, it’s a matter of proportionality. Just for comparison, how much do we know about Obama’s days as a student at Princeton and Harvard? Or about the work she did as a corporate lawyer at Sidley Austin, the Chicago law firm where she met Barack? Or as an assistant to Mayor Daley? Or as executive director of Public Allies Chicago? Or as a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center?
Yeah. Comparably little.
This is, of course, by design. The Michelle-as-fashion-plate narrative is one the Obama campaign has been writing on behalf of its candidate’s wife for basically the past year, a narrative that conveniently eschews substance for carefully calibrated normalcy when it comes to the potential future First Lady. A smart, no-nonsense, Ivy-educated lawyer is a much less relatable figure, after all—per campaign calculations, anyway—than a Target-shopping Supermom. Why reveal intelligence (smarts are so alienating) when you can reveal common-sense fashion sense? “Mrs. Obama and her aides have carefully chosen her appearances on the national stage this fall, mostly selecting high-profile venues that are politically safe,” The New York Times notes in today’s profile of Obama’s political evolution. It continues,
As first lady, Obama advisers say, Mrs. Obama would focus first on her family and then on the issues facing women and military spouses as those groups deal with the economic crisis and the return of troops from Iraq. She also plans to take up national service as an issue, aides say. She will not have a major policy role, they say, and does not plan to have an office in the West Wing.
After declaring that “some of Senator Barack Obama’s advisers once viewed Mrs. Obama as an unpredictable force who sometimes spoke her mind a little too much” (how Victorian!), the piece goes on to note that “she is now regarded within the campaign as a disciplined and effective advocate for her husband.” And that she has “gone a long way toward addressing her greatest unstated challenge: making more voters comfortable with the idea of a black first lady.”