FLOTUS’ casual glamour

How Michelle Obama turned casual into couture

When Michelle Obama leaves the White House for the last time on Jan. 20, her fashion legacy is completely assured. We’re talking carved in Mount Rushmore granite, shined up with shea butter leg grease and co-signed by #BlackGirlMagic. If God has been collecting style receipts for the past eight years — and you know he has been — Obama is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In the future, our favorite style memories may be Obama’s glamorpuss state dinner and inauguration gala gowns that shaped her image as a woman who was quick to tell middle age to hurry up with her cocktail.

But the influence of the gowns pale in comparison to the first lady’s catalog of daywear. Consider that she was photographed nearly every day for 96 months, and you get an idea of how daunting it must have been to create a wardrobe that was both appropriate and authentic. There are thousands of stylish outfits in this category, some one-offs and many repeats. Formal wear may be a consensus-by-committee affair, but private clothes worn to public events shine a klieg light on the wearer’s inner dialogue.

The pace of the East Wing engagement was relentless, but Obama perfected the tricky job of being respectful of her duties as first lady and channeling her version of modern black womanhood. She embraced emerging fashion designers, experimented with color and swung for the fashion fences in an authentic way that no other first lady has ever attempted. The fit of her clothing started out shaky in the early years, but hit its perfect stride around 2011. Dresses and skirts found their perfect length just below the knee, jewelry became less showy and the hair started doing magical, fairy-tale things that wrote their own headlines.

There was also a sly bit of sparkle behind her code-switching alertness. I like to think that All Day Michelle and after-hours Mrs. Obama could and would throw down if her Secret Service deal was too slow to respond to a threat. This is my bit of personal fantasy, but I can clearly see her stepping out of the silver Jimmy Choos, taking off the cashmere cardigan, holding her diamond earrings in her perfectly manicured hand if something felt like it might pop off. You may have started the beef, but Obama has your back. She was there for us because she was us.

The first lady was an elegant nighttime star, but her best daytime looks channeled strength, softness, a polished professionalism, steam-cleaned preparedness, international cool and sexy grown-up adulthood. You knew her from somewhere. She wore the same clothes as a black mom at the Jack and Jill teen dance or your favorite line sister who sends you home with a plate of food. Auntie Michelle sported a hoodie on the way to SoulCycle class and wrapped her beautiful brown arms around excited strangers and old friends. For eight glorious years, Obama was the kitten-heeled sun in our messy American sky. Sail on, girl. You will not be forgotten.

The first lady’s marigold-colored sheath dress designed by Narciso Rodriguez was the final dollop of mango whipped cream atop a succession of memorable State of the Union dresses worn throughout President Barack Obama’s two terms. This is how you make a lasting impression, and CNN reported that the dress sold out on Neiman Marcus’ website an hour after the first lady’s appearance at the Capitol. The beautiful honey-tinted hue was amazing against her skin and really popped against a sea of dark men’s suits. Special mention goes to Michelle’s hair and makeup team, Johnny Wright and Carl Ray, who blessed her with full waves and a warm glow. (Photo by Xinhua/Bao Dandan via Getty Images)
The first lady’s first official visit to Japan and Cambodia was a three-Michelin-star restaurant buffet of beautiful day looks. Her dresses played with color, pattern, shape and form while still being appropriate to the events (visiting girls schools to promote the continuing importance of education). She won raves after deplaning Air Force One in Tokyo wearing a lime-green dress with an abstract black-and-white chevron print by Japanese designer Kenzo. Other high-fashion designers (Dries Van Noten, BCBGMAXAZRIA, Carolina Herrera and Roksanda) also got a chance to flex on this trip. (Photo by TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Let us all raise our voices in praise of the simple, structured sheath dress! The first lady knew well the power of these sleeveless garments, which showcased her legendary gams, toned tummy and rounded caboose. She returned to the style again and again during her tenure in the White House, and found several similar styles in flattering colors (including this red Moises de la Renta number). For her official portrait, unveiled in 2009, Obama wore a black Michael Kors fit-and-flare dress and three strands of pearls. Meredith Koop, the first lady’s stylist, kept the accessories simple: easy pumps, minimal jewelry and one eye-catching element (remember those wide Azzedine Alaia belts?) to bring a life spark to a wonky party. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Two of the first lady’s most flattering dresses were, coincidentally, worn at two Democratic National Conventions, one in 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the other at last year’s event in Philadelphia. The red-and-silver Tracy Reese dress worn at the 2012 convention had just the right amount of flip and swing at the hem, while the fitted cobalt Christian Siriano number worn in Philly was romantic and comfortable. By 2016, Obama’s rhetorical powers were as honed and powerful as her husband’s. And because she is basically Michael Jordan in Game 6 of the 1998 finals, girlfriend gave another #BlackExcellence speech and sank the shot. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Don’t let the preppy colors fool you. The first lady’s green-and-blue Preen dress, worn during a visit to Late Night with David Letterman in March 2012, is what gangsta black Ivy Leaguers wear when they have day business. This is the silent, lasting legacy for little black girls who have only known her as the first lady. This is their standard of beauty, power and authority in America, and it will never get old. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
One of Obama’s best daytime formal “mom in chief” moments happened at the second inaugural ceremony in 2012. The custom coat and dress, designed by former Brooks Brothers designer Thom Browne, was a suit of armor on a chilly January morning. It was the perfect fit for the woman who had morphed into the kind of iconically chic, pulled-together mom we wished we had — and the one working mothers prayed we could be — even for a half a day, just one meeting! (Photo by AP Photo/New York Times, Doug Mills, Pool)
From the very beginning, Obama was definitely here for the mix-and-match. She’d worn inexpensive clothes from shopping mall brands such as Anthropologie and White House Black Market on the 2008 presidential campaign trail, mixing in pricier pieces from higher-end designers as her international profile grew. But her daywear hit its recessionista apex at the G20 Summit in London in 2009 when she paired a bejeweled pastel cardigan sweater with a checkered pencil skirt, both from J. Crew. Three years later, she pulled the same skirt out of her closet, topped it with a camel-colored Michael Kors cashmere sweater and bounced on to Jay Leno’s sofa for a little chat. (Photo by AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
I already know what you’re going to say. That this isn’t exactly an appropriate outfit to wear to church, with your kids, your politician husband and the world’s media in tow. It’s purple and short and maybe a little low-cut for the Episcopalians. While all that is true, it’s also totally beside the point. This was the outfit that proved Obama no longer cared about anybody’s etiquette or fashion rules. Perhaps you don’t know a woman who pulls out her old Azzedine Alaia dress and black over-the-knee stiletto boots on a Sunday, but black folks sure do. It’s a known fact that every black megachurch in Charlotte, North Carolina, Prince George’s County, Maryland, or Atlanta is, in fact, a testing site for nightclub-attire-as-worship wear. They’ll be there in a couple of days — go check. (Photo by AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The Obamas had a memorable meeting with the late Princess Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, during their official visit to London. President Obama and the first lady were invited to dine at Kensington Palace, and Michelle Obama’s camel-colored sweater top, lace skirt, terracotta-colored Narciso Rodriguez coat and suede Jimmy Choo shoes looked sophisticated and comfortable. The contrast between Kate Middleton’s “mumsy at the country club” dress and Michelle Obama’s free-to-be-me ensemble brought back Princess Diana’s fashion-forward identity. (Photo by AP Photo/Carolyn Kaste)
It’s a universal truth that most professional women, whatever their size or shape, should have a couple of wrap dresses in their arsenal. They should own this exact dress, in fact — a black-and-white link-pattern number by Diane von Furstenberg. By 2014, Obama’s friendship with Vogue magazine editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her embrace of (and by) the fashion community had already been established. You can see her subtle evolution from corporate executive into an American sportswear fashionista in this ensemble. It wasn’t a pricey dress, but it wasn’t Ann Taylor, either. The red pumps were a dead giveaway that the first lady was happy to try something experimental and fun. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The first lady led a U.S. delegation to the Milan Expo in May 2015, so she chose the Italian design house Missoni to provide her wonderful grown-up style moment. This is a great example of Obama flexing her considerable fashion muscle at an official state event. She was conservatively attired, but let a bit of her youthful, fun personality peek through by showing off her yellow mani-pedi in sexy metallic summer sandals. Brava! (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama is the best athlete to ever live in the White House. The president gets the press about being a hoops addict, golf aficionado, part-time jogger or weekend cattleman. But who else comes close to the first lady’s public commitment to regular, vigorous exercise? No one else, male or female, has so fully embodied our modern aesthetic of strength and youthful vitality. Can you picture Barbara Bush or Lady Bird Johnson sprinting across the South Lawn of the White House in a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers? No. How about Hillary Clinton jumping rope with a group of students at a Harlem, New York, elementary school? Certainly not. And for eight years, Obama’s enviably toned physique has shown millions of women how to navigate their 40s and early 50s in beast mode. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
When the first lady made a surprise visit to Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C., in May 2011, the world was treated to a mom not making a fool of herself while dancing. As the school’s students exercised to Beyoncé’s hit Get Me Bodied, Obama nonchalantly dipped into the perfect Dougie. Her neon yellow blouse, slim leather belt, wide trousers and flat shoes made moms around the world believe, if only for a brief shining moment, that we really could dance, in public and quite well, without children cringing in eternal embarrassment. (Photo by AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Jill Hudson is the senior style writer for the Undefeated. She is an evolved nerd, a caffeinated shoe fanatic, and a maker of long lists and perfect martinis.