Michelle Obama’s Shorts

Michelle Obama was photographed wearing shorts while on vacation! This breaking news was the subject of a recent poll that was much joked about on Twitter. Naturally, it’s also the subject of Robin Givhan‘s latest.

The first lady stepped off Air Force One during the Obama family’s recent mini-vacation out West wearing a pair of moss-colored shorts. They were not the kind of knee-grazing Bermudas or pedal pushers that the fashion industry has long advocated as work-appropriate sportswear during the summer months. They were not tailored, nor were they masquerading as a skirt. Michelle Obama was wearing play shorts — the kind of casual cotton fare that a woman might choose for a family outing when her itinerary includes hiking around the rim of the Grand Canyon on a hot summer day, which is precisely what the first lady was going to do.

Well, there you go.

But that doesn’t make the ensemble okay.


The noteworthy aspect of Obama’s ensemble is that in recent history, first ladies have rarely dressed so informally in public, particularly as they are emerging from Air Force One while a phalanx of photographers stands ready to record the moment. This exclusive group of women might have dressed in a relaxed manner — khakis or jeans, for instance — but it was always in a way that suggested that they were keenly aware of the ever-present cameras.

Nor, incidentally, have recent first ladies been in their 40s and accompanying small children.

The reality is that a good portion of the culture has become loudly vocal about how clothes don’t matter and how it’s snobbish or shallow to suggest that they do. But clothes are part of our broader aesthetic obligation to each other. That commitment pushes homeowners to mow their lawns and not be a blight to the neighborhood. It makes them think twice before painting their houses in psychedelic stripes. The desire to be aesthetically respectful means guests give consideration to what they wear to a friend’s wedding or mourners take care in how they dress for a loved one’s funeral.

In the White House, the aesthetic demands are higher than they are on Main Street. There are no neat rules, only confounding expectations. First ladies often get caught up in a desire not to appear elitist — the lingering aftermath of Nancy Reagan’s painful lessons in ready-to-wear borrowing. But few observers seem to remember that Rosalynn Carter took her share of criticism for wearing a recycled dress to her husband’s inauguration. How miserly!, critics clucked.

Avoiding the appearance of queenly behavior is politically wise. But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.

I’m sympathetic to that argument. Certainly, Jackie Kennedy — the last young first lady with young children — would never have appeared in public dressed in that fashion. [Commenter Rich points out that Hillary Clinton was just as young.  Indeed she was — actually a few months younger at this point in her husband’s presidency.  She never seemed young to me and, certainly, was not a style icon.] Then again, that was nearly half a century ago.

As to the Today Show poll, it “got one of the show’s biggest responses ever” with “a whopping 300,000 people” taking part. Overwhelmingly (83%) thought the shorts were fine. HuffPo’s Anya Strzemien conducted a similar survey and got far less approval:

For her part, Strzemien, “thought the fact that she wore shorts was newsworthy because she’s the first first lady to wear shorts on Air Force One. I was interested as a newsperson because it was a first. A lot of things the Obamas have done have been firsts.”

This is probably a no-win situation for Mrs. Obama.  Had she disembarked wearing a sun dress or linen Bermudas, critics would have scoffed that she was an elitist who didn’t know how to dress for a hike.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    What’s with all the clothing pieces? You auditioning for a foreign policy gig at GQ? I’m gonna start to worry if you enter the pleats vs no pleats controversy.


  2. just me says:

    Nitpicking the first ladies fashion choices is nothing new.

    Nitpicking the wearing of shorts, when wearing them is completely appropriate is trying to create controversy where non exists.

    When Michelle Obama wears a pair of shorts to something other than her summer vacation I might get up in arms, but until then I think other things are more important.

  3. davod says:

    If Michelle has lost Robin Givhan then all is lost. The truth is probably much simpler. Givhan had to rewrite her article because Michelle was not showing enough of her finely toned arms for the arms to continue to be the main topic of her article.

  4. Maggie Mama says:

    What I object to is the fact that she looks like she spent the last two days sleeping in a tent … while wearing those shorts and tank.

    What was she doing that caused all those wrinkles? Her daughter’s outfit doesn’t look “slept in” – although she could lose the Michael Jackson hair-in-the-face hairdo.

    You can’t possible call Michele Obama a “fashion icon” after seeing this outfit.

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    Maybe shes going to stop a town hall meeting?

  6. G.A.Phillips says:

    At…. dang I hate forgetting words, do they make a checker for that?

    And she looks fine.It’s a vacation.

    Why do we need to take photos of people coming off jets?

    AND I’m more worried about the “pat” look the secretary of state represents us with on diplomatic missions.

  7. Clyde says:

    Those Aren’t wrinkles, there Fat Rolls from living the high life on the Govt Tit!!! Forget Obooba and there kinds!

  8. Mr. Prosser says:

    “This is probably a no-win situation for Mrs. Obama. Had she disembarked wearing a sun dress or linen Bermudas, critics would have scoffed that she was an elitist who didn’t know how to dress for a hike.” Your summation says it all and can be applied to every single thing the First Family does for the next three and a half to seven and a half years.

  9. Reilly says:

    Michelle shares a problem with many other women in this country. She dresses like she’s in her early 20’s and thinks the outfit will mask the fact that she’s middle aged. Common mistake, but not as bad as president wee-wee talking like a three year old.

  10. Eneils Bailey says:

    Looks like she failed one of the crucial tests for women and fashion. An honest self evaluation in front of a full length mirror. Maybe Air Force One does not have a full length mirror.
    A causal outfit is definitely called for in this situation. I think the selection of the individual pieces could have been better.

  11. Jim Henley says:

    Mark my words: if you check the record I’ll guarantee you’ll find evidence that Jeremiah Wright wore shorts in the summer.

  12. Michael Snow says:

    It makes me wish Kucinich had won. You ever see his wife? YOW!

  13. Mike P says:

    Oh Jesus H Christ. Michelle looks very good for a woman in her 40’s, wearing shorts on vacation doesn’t diminish her status as a “style icon” (people with short memories are forgetting that folks were going gaga over her attire at the inauguration and the Europe trip), etc.

    This is just a bunch of haters throwing salt.

  14. crumja says:

    I’ve never understood the obsession with fashion or will even pretend to understand it. I will wear what feels comfortable, style be damned, so I won’t pass judgment on what other people do.

  15. Michael Snow says:

    Haters. The drama word for everyone who says anything against anyone resembling a Democrat. Zzzzzzz.

    I am sure you spread the love for Sarah! Lighten up, dude!

  16. anjin-san says:

    I am sure you spread the love for Sarah!

    People dislike Palin because she is a serial liar, not because of how she dresses. I find Palin to be and attractive and wholesome looking woman. Its too bad that there is such a huge disconnect between what you see and what you get.

  17. N'all says:

    Like it or not, the Obamas are a dirtbag family and they dress accordingly.

  18. Eneils Bailey says:

    It makes me wish Kucinich had won. You ever see his wife? YOW!

    Yeah, I agree.

    I don’t mean to beat the horse to death.
    I think when she is dressed up and is wearing well-fitting fashionable attire she is a good-looking woman.
    A classic beauty…no.
    When you look at this picture and some taken in the past of her in poorly chosen causal attire, some flaws become evident.

    Ms. Obama has some physical characteristics that require the good use of fashion to minimize the effect.
    She is slightly bow legged.
    She has knobby knees.
    She has a generously portioned shoe size.
    She has more than ample butt beam.
    She has small breasts.
    She has a jutting lower jaw.
    Any fashion designer that was dealing with this woman would have to recognize and address those issues. Probably would not tell her, just get to the job at hand. After all, you would probably like to walk out of the White House without having you face eaten.

    And she has done an excellent job with addressing these issues with fashion in her tenure at the White House.

    As Robin Givhan said:

    But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.

    And common brings out the flaws.

  19. peterh says:

    “This is probably a no-win situation for Mrs. Obama”

    As various polls have suggested…..it’s only a no-win situation with a minority that deserves its status as such…..next…..

  20. austintx says:

    The problem is she looks like a slob. If it looks like Sasquatch, and walks like Sasquatch…

    If Liberals stop bleating about how beautiful this goon is, people would stop pointing out what slothful goon she appears to be: Win/win situation!

  21. anjin-san says:

    I would love to see the women, if any, that some of the morons who are teeing off on Mrs. Obama take to bed every night.

    On second thought, I would probably rather NOT see them…

  22. Deborah says:

    In some ways, this is part of the change Obama’s legions talked about. That generation brought a whole new sensibility to showing skin, to the point that there is now safety in numbers. When everyone is unconcerned about hiding the body, there is no longer any shock value or untoward message. Michele Obama looks completely appropriate, even conservative, amidst an entire generation that has grown up with stretchy body revealing fabrics, no matter your shape or size, and with an unprecedented informality.

  23. Leslie says:

    This issue isn’t whether or not shorts are appropriate for a family vacation in a hot climate (they are). The issue is whether the First Lady has the class, sense, and respect for her title to dress appropriately for Air Force One travel. Unfortunately she does not.

    It was lazy of her not to select a more appropriate outfit (which could have included “nice” shorts) rather than this crumpled, unflattering look. As the first African American couple, I’d think the Obamas would make more of an effort to look, talk (“wee-wee”) and behave (fist bump) in a manner befitting a U.S. President, especially on Air Force One. Kind of makes you think she’s not proud of her country.

  24. G.A.Phillips says:

    People dislike Palin because she is a serial liar, not because of how she dresses.

    And Obama Is? Drop the satchel of mushrooms and go take a nap bro.

  25. anjin-san says:

    Given the current state of the GOP, I guess it is no surprise that whining about fashion is all they have left…

  26. Rich says:

    “Jackie Kennedy — the last young first lady with young children until Michelle” ????

    Wasn’t Hillary about the same age as Michelle and also had a young child (13 yrs old).

  27. James Joyner says:

    Wasn’t Hillary about the same age as Michelle and also had a young child (13 yrs old).

    Yes, of course. To be honest, Hillary never seemed young to me. And I was 28 at the time Bill got elected.

  28. Maggie Mama says:

    Chelsea at 13 years old was NOT a young child … she was officially a “TEENager”.

    10, 11, and 12 year olds are considered pre-teens. Malia now falls into that category while Sasha (Natasha) can be called a “young child”.

  29. S. Gorgo says:

    Michelle Obama’s appalling outfit in these pictures simply represents her contempt for the U.S. presidency.

  30. Maggie Mama says:

    Somebody was listening … cause the photos of their arrival in Martha’s Vineyard reflects a “classier” look … you can even see Malia’s face.

  31. Wayne says:

    “Then again, that was nearly half a century ago. “

    16 years is not nearly half a century.

    Palin has been attack for the way she dresses. Even being called “dressing like a slutty flight attendant” and about dressing in a sports bike outfit in a sports magazine with comments such as “that is inappropriate for her position”.

    Again I don’t care much about what any of them wear just the hypocrisy of so many who comment on them.

  32. Who cares what Michelle Obama wears on a vacation with her family? And why exactly should they care? An overly long post and 30+ comments? Good grief.

  33. Steve Verdon says:

    Well, there you go.

    But that doesn’t make the ensemble okay.


    Well done James, well done. That got a LOL out of me.

  34. An Interested Party says:

    Again I don’t care much about what any of them wear just the hypocrisy of so many who comment on them.

    Indeed, this thread is a vivid example of that, as I’m sure many of the people here who have made the most vile comments about the first lady would need fainting couches and smelling salts if such equally vicious comments were made about Sarah Palin…granted, the reverse would also be true for many who make such comments about the former governor of Alaska…

  35. anjin-san says:

    Palin has been attack for the way she dresses.

    Well, she looked pretty sharp when she was shopping at Saks on someone else’s nickel…

  36. quiana says:

    All of you need to get a life. There are more important issues going on in the world than the First Lady shorts . They were on vacation. The problem is she looks better than alot of woman her age STOP BEING JEALOUS!! The Obama’s are doing a wonderful job. The Obama’s did not recieve your vote but they are still THE FIRST FAMILY!!

  37. I think this is just really cool how everyone is following Michelle like they did Jackie Kennedy. She has become a much bigger factor in how we look than most the first ladies that I can remember.

  38. Peggy V-Rudolph says:

    Where are we going with these comments about Mrs. Obama looking trendy and that there is nothing wrong with these shorts. You would have NEVER seen any other First Lady (and I emphasize LADY) were shorts! What are we coming to? This is the First Lady, whether I like her or not. . .I don’t care if her arms are bare, but please let’s not degrade the position she is suppose to uphold. Of course, I see overweight, sloppy women dressing like this all the time and wonder . . .