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.