America’s new first family dictates national fashion

Barack Obama, left, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts, not seen, as his wife Michelle, holds the Lincoln Bible and daughters Malia, left, and Sasha, watch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Chuck Kennedy, The Associated Press

Barack Obama, left, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts, not seen, as his wife Michelle, holds the Lincoln Bible and daughters Malia, left, and Sasha, watch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Chuck Kennedy, The Associated Press

By Jim Vorel

Models, actors and the stars of stage initially come to mind as those on the forefront of fashion. Designer names serve as shields to ward off queries of “What are you wearing?” from persistent red-carpet Hollywood reporters, and the cut of a suit will later be dissected ad nauseam by fashionista analysts.

The White House is a long way from Southern California, but newly inaugurated President Barack Obama might want to prepare for similar analysis. Like it or not, both the new president and the first family have become pop culture and fashion sensations. The family’s seemingly simple choices of what to wear or do have suddenly become influential picks in arenas as varied as fashion and sports.

Barack Obama has been a pop culture icon since the memorable address to the 2004 Democratic Convention that brought him into the national spotlight. His wife Michelle and daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, are more recent entrants but have been the subject of much fashion-related discussion. Prior to speaking engagements, Web communities pore over possible ensembles for Obama family members. Some Web sites, such as mrs-o.org, focus specifically on individual Obama family members, in this case the “impossibly elegant and polished” Michelle Obama.

The Obamas have reacted to the attention of a fashion-conscious media and Internet community with increased secrecy about their upcoming wardrobe choices. Up to the point of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the family’s wardrobe was kept secret, with one MSNBC fashion analyst calling the choice “a game-time decision.”

Locally, fashion retailers have followed the trends and news of the Obama family’s fashion choices. Ali Simpson, the owner of Findings Boutique, 1741 W. Kirby Ave., Champaign, said she thinks Michelle Obama will be one of the country’s most stylish public figures, and compared her to Jackie Kennedy.

“She’s definitely one of the more stylish first ladies,” Simpson said. “Laura Bush, she had a sense of style and was classy, but she also was older. Michelle has more of a chance to be fun with fashion.”

Simpson believes Michelle Obama can best do this by dressing simply and understatedly, eschewing overly complicated or imposing pantsuits in favor of stylish and classy dresses.

“She doesn’t need to lose her femininity simply because she will be the first lady,” Simpson said. “I just think a dress would be best for the inauguration because she has a great figure and can embrace her femininity.”

Of the “lemongrass yellow” coat and dress by Isabel Toledo that Michelle Obama wore for the inauguration, Simpson said, “It was very first lady. A good choice, understated but elegant. I’m not crazy about the stockings, but I suppose it was pretty cold out there.”

Students are also eager to debate the fashion of the Obamas.

“I think Michelle is pretty stylish, but not necessarily trendy,” said Rachel Remke, a recent LAS graduate and Pitaya employee. “I wasn’t really a fan of what she wore for the election. I guess overall, she dresses more conservatively, but in a chic way. She’s definitely trying to look younger than previous first ladies.”

Barack Obama, when not speech-making or appearing as a featured player in Spiderman comics, has made perhaps a more masculine fashion impact with his very public embrace of the Chicago White Sox, via his trademark worn-out White Sox hat.

The hat, according to a November Chicago Tribune article, is something that Obama is frequently seen wearing while working out or taking his daughters to school. He declined to accept choices of several new hats from the White Sox, instead preferring his battered favorite. White Sox vice president of communications Scott Reifert, in an article on MLB.com, attributed an increase in the sale of White Sox hats throughout November and December to Obama’s hat.

Perhaps the most potentially influential trendsetters in the Obama household, however, are the Obama children, Malia and Sasha. Clothing manufacturers who are lucky enough to have the young Obamas in their products may have a leg-up on the hotly competed “tween market.” During Obama’s term, at least one of his daughters will fall consistently into the tween demographic.

This fashion popularity also by no means extends only to formal dress. The hooded, peace-sign decorated shirt worn by 7-year-old Sasha on her first day of school is sold out at Bloomingdale’s.

Laetitia Matiatos, sophomore in LAS and French transfer student, said she believes the Obamas use fashion to appear as a cohesive family unit, as evidenced by their matching black-and-red election night wardrobe.

“They look both classic and cool,” Matiatos said. “I think they’re the most fashionable presidential family since the Kennedys.”

She added that she found the Obama family better dressed than French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Their style is more classical than his,” she said. “In France, we call (Sarkozy) the ‘bling-bling president.'”