Smooth Ripples

Michelle Obama’s impact on women’s fashion

Michelle Obama had an effect on how many American women dressed. This wasn’t about a particular item of clothing she wore selling out; it was that she injected style into American culture; she shifted preferences of American women towards what she herself wore. Cardigans: she managed to make cardigans a “thing” — the perennial, never-really- out-of-favor knit cardigan into a newly popularized item of clothing. Mrs. Obama wore her cardigans fitted and usually short. 23170a6819fc1e2f974a3cc29132f049

(montage from


(montage from, accessed via google image)

She made brooches a “thing”; she popularized colors, such as her favored dandelion yellow, featured in the above montage that a fan linked directly to products recommended for the color. Her interesting choice to mix casual and dress clothes deeply impacted women’s styles in work wear — while, for example, the acceptability of bare legs in summer even for formal workwear, a shift that occurred in the late 1990s/early 2000s, had freed women from the tyranny of pantyhose (there are pockets of pantyhose-wearing populations, as Fortune Magazine painstakingly detailed in 2015) — Mrs. Obama contributed to a relaxation of what counted as “work wear” for women. She rarely wore a suit, almost never a matched suit. She often combined styles and brands, rarely choosing an “outfit” sold as that (for example, a matched suit with blouse and shoes that matched in tone, color, and message).

Melania Trump’s style

Mrs. Trump does not have the same impact. Melania Trump, a former model with a relatively short and minimally successful career, was never known as a “good model”. In a Vanity Fair article about Mrs. Trump, photograher Matthew Atanian says that ” “She was always kind of a stiff person. That’s why she wasn’t a successful model, because she couldn’t move.””  Melania’s career was limited by her own reserve and caution, a lack of flexibility and energy. She was, according to the same article, exceptionally disciplined as to her diet and exercise, her cultivation of contacts, and her lifestyle in general.

Top models are actresses, able to emote, gesture, and move their bodies in unique ways. Consider Linda Evangelista, a supermodel from the 1990s. Ms. Evangelista was a superior model able to convey physicality and emotionality in movement. Imagine your own Insta-game attempting this pose, and you will see that the physical skill required for top-level modeling is, to say the least, dependent on an openness of expression and character hard to fake.


Mrs. Trump’s fashion since first lady appears to have made few inroads in the larger culture. It’s not that she favors designers out-of-reach of everyday Americans; while Mrs. Trump does gravitate towards extremely expensive clothing, Mrs. Obama wore, while often slightly less-expensive styles, high-end designer clothing as well. Rather, Mrs. Trump’s choices express a stiffness, formality, and cautiousness at odds with trends in women’s clothing for 2017.

For less-formal occasions Mrs. Trump often wears white. She always wears clothing that is tight- or close-fitting, she wears either ballet flats or very high heels, and she usually opts for sleeveless tops. The white eyelet dress to the left, from April 2017, is atypical in fabric (she rarely chooses fabric with any discernible pattern, whether in the weave, detailing, or print), but typical in its silhouette. The tiered skirt is tight fitting around the hips, and the tiers are similar to her favored bell-sleeve silhouette for winter clothes.


For the Eclipse on August 21, 2017, she was photographed wearing a black sheath dress — again, a very typical look for her but surprisingly formal for the photographic opportunity. Mr. Trump is not wearing his more-typical navy blue suit, although the tie is a favorite (see left image below, where he paired the tie with navy blue).

More formal occasions call for suits, sheath dresses, and at Mar-a-Lago (the image to the right), a white ensemble with a modernistic edge. While expensive, her suits are quite conservative, very tight fitting, worn with very high heels. She does favor some kind of loose fabric to either side of her stomach, a detail that provides a bit of “cover” but also improves the silhouette in a photograph taken head on. There’s a two-dimensionality to many of her clothing choices: she often chooses clothes that look good “head on” but look slightly stilted in action.

Mrs. Trump’s influence on American style 

So, are consumers — namely women in the upper to middle classes — taking up stylistic cues from the current first lady? On Ann Taylor’s website you can see hints of the influence in the bell sleeves, but the overall fit, silhouette, color and patterns choices are quite dissimilar. Below is a screen shot from the “Work Wear New Arrivals For Fall” page.ann taylor new arrivals

Bell sleeves remain popular, seen on the three tops, top row. But the dress is loose and drapey, the pants are called “easy” and the colors are a bright blue-and-green.

The same “Work Wear New Arrivals Most Popular” results at Macys look quite different from what is reigning at Ann Taylor. Here, none of the pieces suggest Mrs. Trump’s influence of tight-fitting sheaths with severe cuts. The Calvin Klein suit is a classic uninfluenced by time, place or season, but the rest of the page features tight-fitting pants (a style popular for the last ten years) and loose-fitting tops.

Betty Fisher Boutique, DC, is a very popular, upscale clothing store for DC women. While they might go to Nina McLemore for traditional suit jackets (favored by Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Elaine Chao, as well as Sally Yates and nearly every other high-profile political woman in DC), Betty Fisher is where professional women in the city shop. Right now, two featured outfits on Betty Fisher’s terrific outfit blog show classic style tweaked for modern edges. The standard narrow pants and top outfit adds in the dissonant touch of black heels and a large satchel purse; the “little black dress” has morphed into a fabulous billowy dress walking the line between casual and dressy with pearlized beads and pearly leather tote, and the daring touch of flat tennies (upscale in material choice with leather) with white trim. This is how Mrs. Obama tended to dress — balancing the traditional with modern, mixing casual with formal.

betty fisher

The retailer that demonstrates the closest alignment with Mrs. Trump’s style is the mass marketer White House Black Market. Their “New Arrivals Work Wear” page features close fitting skirts and sheath dresses, basic jackets, sheer blouses and obi belt. It’s not quite Mrs. Trump — that obi belt is a bit outre for her, with its dangling cords. The skirt is a bit too long (notice that model’s skirt had the length about 1.5″ up from the product model shot, wear the skirt sits at the lower edge of the knee). These are conservative, “safe” clothes — more because of the lack of frisson from mixing moods (casual with formal) and from mixing styles (here, it’s all “business” without relief). white house new arrivals

Mrs. Trump’s influence seems to be in the popularization and persistence of the bell sleeve. The bell (or trumpet) sleeve is flattering on most women, does not allow for a jacket (a welcome thing for most women!), and looks very good if worn longer and over narrow pants, jeans, or skirts. The bell sleeve has “classy” overtones, for reasons I discussed in another blog entry, Bell Curves. It’s a faux-regal look. Mrs. Trump herself seems to have either dropped the style or views it as a “winter style”.

But whatever her preferences, after a few months as a rarely-seen First Lady, her impact on fashion, style, and taste appears to be negligible. She is a distant figure for many Americans, encastled in various towers, white houses, and colonnaded porches. I titled this post “Smooth Ripples” because it is as though she dropped into the pond (or swamp, to use her husband’s metaphor) and the ripples from that impact smoothed out quickly, as if she was never really there.


2 thoughts on “Smooth Ripples

  1. I think you’re exactly right about Melania’s negligible influence on trends, aside from the bell sleeves. It’s curious because in some ways her way of dressing reminds me of Kate Middleton’s – upholding very traditional feminine aesthetics through extremely high-end and expensive clothing, except that I think Kate Middleton actually has been a lot more influential at least as to the trends seen in kind of middlebrow retailers like Ann Taylor, Banana, etc. I wonder how much of this is deliberate?

    At any rate, neither Kate nor Melania seem able to project any of the joie de vivre that Michelle Obama frequently did.

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