Is It Demeaning To Talk About Michelle Obama's Clothes?

Fashion black pattern skirt 

In Thursday's WaPost, Jeanne McManus makes the case that it's perfectly all right to talk about Michelle Obama's clothes.

How to say this: I enjoy reading about Michelle Obama's clothes. I like to know what she's wearing, appreciate details about her shoes and gloves, wonder where she got her necklace. When she shows up at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I'm not distracted from her message by being simultaneously informed that she is in a slate-gray suit.

Is it right about here that other women start throwing shoes at me?

In the stunning image of Michelle Obama, a woman of substance and of style (in this case, attention-getting, Vogue-worthy style), it is apparent that in Washington we don't always do a good job of acknowledging those two sides of the same woman -- or of allowing them to coexist. Hawk-eyed consumers of mainstream media are ready to pounce anytime a reporter covering Mrs. Obama goes off message and writes about her clothes.

You should read the whole article, which as of this writing has garnered 299 reader comments (many of them idiotic partisan rants of various flavors, as is the custom in such forums) and is the sixth most viewed article.

It reminds me of the short but strange discussion that broke out on Brad DeLong's econ blog after he ran a picture of me and someone asked about my shoes. In liberal-intellectual land, there still seems to be a prevailing notion that women of substance--or liberal women of substance, as opposed to libertarians like me--pay no attention to fashion. That makes Michelle Obama a problem.

But, as I noted in The Substance of Style, the opposition of style and substance isn't the historical or anthropological norm. It's a post-Victorian WASP hangup. To take one relevant exception: African Americans have, since slave days, realized that style can be not just a source of great personal pleasure but a public assertion of dignity and personal worth. It's probably no accident that two of the country's most eminent and intellectual fashion correspondents, the WaPost's Robin Givhan and the WSJ's Teri Agins, are African American. I was Givhan's contemporary at Princeton and, believe me, no intellectually respectable white girl would have admitted to being interested in clothes. We were still living in the shoe-throwing culture McManus writes about--the same culture that left Hillary Clinton unable to cope with her hair.

Besides, if it's silly to talk about Michelle Obama's clothes, it's a lot sillier to talk about Barack Obama's hoops skills. Just think of fashion as sports for women.

Check out The Black Snob's smart-and-pretty Michelle Obama fashion retrospective, from which I stole the photo above. It's a year old, but still good. (More recently, she had a good rant on the NAACP's historically clueless crusade against "poofy dresses.")

NAACP's Image Awards Tonight

The NAACP celebrates its 100th anniversary today and their 40th Annual Image Awards will be televised tonight on FOX.  The awards' stated mission is to celebrate

 the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts (motion picture, television, recording, and literature), as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors.

It's that second clause that evaded Defamer when the blog questioned Dakota Fanning's nomination. I vaguely understand the frustration of my African-American friends when they have to keep schooling dim white people. But then, I've been taken for black myself.

Years ago, I worked on a pilot for HBO featuring Ice-T as a talk show host, discussing issues of the day.  My job was to create sequences of movie clips to introduce each section, compiled from Blacksploitation films, classics of Black cinema, et cetera.  Very fun job-- I got paid to watch Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-law, and thus know the Rudy Ray Moore oeuvre inside and out.  My AP and I were the only white people on the staff.

The sequences fell into various categories--Pimps and Hos, Slick Rides, and my personal favorite We Just Talk That Way To Fool Y'all--and were pretty damn funny, if I say so myself. EP Carl Craig dragged me along to present these to the execs at HBO. Presentation commences, most of us fall about the place laughing, and the suits try to look amused, but are clearly mystified and/or horrified. Some, most, all of those film clips were profane, rude and crude. That's why they're funny.

I take my little VHS tape and leave. Back in the office, Carl tells me that one of the VPs was shocked that I could have come up with these outrageous montages, as (exact quote) "She doesn't look very street." Carl's instant rejoiner was "Street? Kate's white!"

And thus my rep as a down-with-it sistah was destroyed even before it got traction. Of course, everyone else in the office thought his mistake was hilarious and yet another example of the cluelessness of white people.

And after 100 years of the NAACP's hard work,  ignorance still stumbles  along.  

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Mama M.I.A.

Mia The minute M.I.A. stepped out on to the stage at last night's Grammys, Facebook status updates and Tweets blew up. The rapper performed nine months pregnant (her baby was actually due that day) and she was truly outrageous, wearing an crazy, see-through mesh polka-dotted number and tennis shoes and bouncing around like a teen after too much pizza and ice cream. (Check out the number here.) It was kinda awesome.

(Here she is on the red carpet before the show.)

You've come a long way baby!  When Demi Moore posed nude at 7 months for Vanity Fair in 1991, magazines were pulled from shelves and some covered them up with paper bags as if they were porn.

Pregnancy has, until very recent history, been something women concealed. Hello Grace Kelly hiding her belly with her Hermès  bag.

Ironically, after M.I.A., I switched over to Masterpiece Theatre where a character was talking of her daughter's impending confinement. I do believe the Grammys would've given Victorian ladies the vapors.

The actual process of labor and delivery were very important to aristocratic families of the Victorian era. Many would travel to London weeks before to stay with friends throughout the final few weeks. The purpose of this journey, called going to town....The house had to be prepared very specifically to accommodate the pregnant woman and her husband, friends, family, the doctor and his team of medical attendants. Not all women actually made the trip to London or to an alternate location to deliver, and therefore many rearranged all of the rooms and furniture in their own house to prepare for weeks of confinement. Confinement was the term used to describe the last few weeks of pregnancy that were spent in the bed of a specially prepared house. (work cited: Lewis, Judith S. In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860 . Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, NJ, 1986.)

172007[1] Confinement?! Heck no! Today a cottage industry has popped up around outfitting and photographing pregnant brides-- and not necessarily in blousy, drapey dresses, but belly-hugging designs that celebrate the baby-to-be.

I think the next wave of feminist empowerment is not with words but with images. M.I.A. did her own version of "going to town" last night and it was at once shocking and amazing. (Check out some of the comments, "She should be ashamed for being so disgusting.")

If a woman, hours away from giving birth, can perform alongside the boys and manage to bring down the house, I'd say we just made strides in breaking down another image of the more delicate sex.


Glam Or Spam? Special Inaugural Edition

What do you think of Michelle Obama's inauguration outfit, by Isabel Toledo? Kate Betts at Time calls it "glamorous," while LAT blogger Elizabeth Snead explains its practicalities.

But a harsh Groomzilla weighs in by email: "Heinous! The dead sunflower color with the ridiculous rhinestone collar was a huge miss. Was she wearing a glittering poncho over a ballgown?  Was it a halter dress clasped at the neck with a brooch, covered by a sequined capulet with shoulder pads? What on earth was she thinking? Her daughters looked elegant and glowing. Mom looked like she stumbled into the Laura Bush Collection for Kohl's."

"Heinous" seems rather strong to me, but the Laura Bush comparison rings true: She does seem to be playing "First Lady." Groomzilla notwithstanding, the outfit struck me as safe, though the olive gloves were a creative touch. Olive isn't my favorite, but I do love leather gloves in interesting colors.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Cathy Horyn narrates a slideshow of Michelle Obama's inaugural week fashions, with good photos I hadn't seen elsewhere. I'd never thought about what a large wardrobe of coats she has.

Slowdown Of Luxury Brings Out The Moral Platitudes

Chanelstore[1]  The NYT article, "In the lap of luxury, Paris squirms" includes this quote,

“Since the ancient Greeks, luxury goods have always been stamped with the seal of immorality,” said Gilles Lipovetsky, a sociologist who has written several books about consumerism. “They represent waste, the superficial, the inequality of wealth. They have no need to exist.”

I don't buy it. If they have no need to exist, then why have we always been surrounded by luxury goods "since the ancient Greeks." Luxury may not be as basic as food, water and shelter, but it definitely serves a need.

What the article does mention, though, is not the end of luxury but a move to a more moral consumerism.

"But last week in Paris, Mr. Sarkozy and the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted a conference of political leaders and Nobel Prize-winning economists to find ways to instill moral values into the global economy. The old financial order had been “perverted” by “amoral” and uncontrolled capitalism, Mr. Sarkozy said, deploring the fact that, “the signs of wealth count more than wealth itself.”

Of course it's easy to call this recession a return to modesty and/or a balancing of core values, but again, I call b.s. It's awfully sobering to find oneself in an economic recession, but that doesn't mean the taste for the booze of yesteryear has evaporated. It's simply easier to convince yourself that a reversal of fortune is good for you and your peers. After all (and especially to true lovers of luxury), the glass can always look half full, right?

Optimism, as Kirkus Reviews said of the material in Optimism: The Biology of Hope, "Optimism is inextricably bound up with the future, and [author] Tiger notes to what extent humans are unique in their awareness of time passing and mortality."

In other words, it's perfectly natural for us humans to hit a wall, scratch our heads in disbelief and decide we won't be hitting one of those again in the future. Thus we come up with ways of avoiding the wall (e.g. economic fallout), by naming new guidelines that we all must follow to be successful; in this case discussion of morality in economics, the death of luxury and "the new modesty."

But moralism is subjective, right? Especially on a global scale. And when it comes right down to it, once we humans get our hands on a big chunk of change again, we'll probably just run into another large and obvious wall, dressed to the nines from other people's money.

Terrine_de_foie_gras_doie[1] In the article, La Grande Épicerie's general director is quoted saying, "In the past, customers would buy an entire block of foie gras; this year it was just five slices."

Trust, when and if the money comes back, so will the insatiable appetite for force-fed goose liver.

The Pink Plague

2241235924_acd32675ee The Daily Mail's Sarah Harris calls it "the pink plague": the all-pink, girly-girl toy aisle. The pink wave, she suggests, leads kids to "get 'hooked on the girl colour' from a young age" and then to be "duped into buying products that encourage them to grow up too quickly, such as lip-glosses and Playboy pencil cases." (I thought Playboy was for boys, but maybe things are different across the pond.) The princess issue comes up too.

But what bothers me is the superficial issue: all that pink. I hate it. I've never liked pink. I wouldn't even wear Schiaparelli "shocking pink"--the only acceptable kind--until I was in my mid-40s. Why are we telling girls they have to like pink to be feminine? Why can't they like red or green or (dare I suggest it) blue?

And don't even get me started on the evils of pink ribbons. Just because I had breast cancer doesn't mean I like pink. This site makes me queasier than chemo did.

Photo by Flickr user MeL, under Creative Commons license.

Silence Is Golden

Shane193[1] Consider for a moment the picture of the silent, capable man: the 007, or the mysterious cowboy who meanders into town and takes care of business, even the official portrait of JFK with his head down, deep in thought. Their glamour is rooted in our very DNA. 

Anthropologically speaking, when times are tough, silence is the best way to live to see the next day. “Each man must do his own surviving,” writes Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. “Privacy is important for strength in that lonely work.” 

But we live in a culture that’s tell-all, all-the-time. In 1994, Molly Mayfield in the Rocky Mountain News coined a new word. “the Oprahization of our culture—the astonishing propensity to tell all, even the most sacred, private things to an audience of strangers…”


When Oprah first went on the air her more scandalous guests would appear behind a screen or, who else remembers this??, dressed in disguise, big glasses, wigs, etc. That was 1985. By 2007, middle-class women were lifting up their shirts on national TV,for her Bra Revolution show. (Not to be outdone, Tyra added her own classy spin to the topic.) Perhaps we’ll look back at the apex of this era of T.M.I. as Tom Cruise’s jumping on Oprah's yellow couch and continuously dropping to the floor to do the E.R. arm pump all while professing his love for Katie Holmes. As my mother used to say “What would the neighbors think?” 

Directly after that stunt Cruise went on a public relations whirlwind (“You’re glib, Matt. Glib.”) Note to those in the PR field: “Thrashing does not save a drowning person… Those who can float quietly have a better chance,” writes Gonzales.

Part of surviving, as Gonzales sees it, is constantly being able to reorient your mental map. A survivor must take in his surroundings, admit to himself he's over his head (humility), discard all hope of rescue (he's got to do it himself), and just get on with the business of making the right choices. "Survivors aren't fearless. They use fear: they turn it into anger and focus," he writes. (See Russell Crowe's Maximus in Gladiator.)

  Javierbardem-no-country-for-old-men[1] Strangely though, even though it is programmed into our DNA to be silent in survival, lately the quiet one turns out to be the sinister character to avoid: Daniel Day-Lewis' character in There Will Be Blood, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

Economically, environmentally, individually, these are tough times. So where’s the good guy who puts up and shuts up, on the big screen or even in everyday life? From Gonzales' book, "Epictetus said, 'and let silence be the general rule, or let only what is necessary be said and in few words. And rarely and when the occasion calls shall we say something.'"

Somewhere, maybe because we've had it pretty easy for so long, we've forgotten the best way to survive is to go inside ourselves and stay quiet.  You feel it, I feel it, even Lily Allen feels it. She sings about it in her new song, “The Fear.”

"I want to be rich and I want lots of money 
I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny 
I'll take my clothes off and it will be shameless 
'Cuz everyone knows that's how you get famous 
I don't know what's right and what's real anymore 
I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore 
When do you think it will all become clear? 
‘Cause I’m being taken over by The Fear"

Nollywood Glamour-pusses Named

My Google alert for "glamour" consistantly leads me to new and delightful sources.  Lanre Alfred, writing in Modern Ghana,  names the most stylish women in Nigeria, aka Nollywood.

These are women like former First Lady, Hajia Maryam Babangida, Nana Otedola, Erelu Ojuolape Ojora, Hajia Bola Shagaya, Senator Daisy Danjuma, Fifi Ejindu, Florence Ita- Giwa, Angela Onyeador, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu, Chief Nike Akande, Sale Alesh, Moji Paul-Lawal, Chioma Madubuko Folorunso Alakija, Ireti Asemota, Yeye Funke Daniel, Hajia Abba Folawiyo, Titi Atiku-Abubakar, Ladun Sijuwade, Nkiru Anumudu, Funmi Goka, to mention but a few.

Besides being a copyeditor's nightmare, these names are significant, because so few are known by us here in the US. 9426

Fashion Recession

KellyIt's not just the luxury stores. Judging from these auction results, the economic contraction is hitting the market for vintage fashion, including such supposedly sure investments as Hermès bags.

This wine-red crocodile Kelly bag from 1990 was expected to go for £8,000 - £12,000. It sold for £4,000, with a single bid. The bag may be timeless, but it also screams, I spent $10,000 on a purse. Sometimes, that's a feature, at least in some quarters. Right now, it's a bug. Better to scream a lower number. (For those who are wondering, £4,000 is $5,864 at today's exchange rate.)

Other examples: a black croc Kelly bag from the 1980s, estimated at £3,500 - £5,000, went for £1,750; a midnight blue croc Kelly bag of the same vintage, estimated at £4,000 - £6,000, went for £2,000; and an unused 2007 tan leather Birkin bag, estimated at £4,000 - £5,000, went for £3,800. All still way beyond my bag budget, but bargains of a sort.

These depressed prices could be good news for museum fashion collections, which can find it hard to afford the accessories that go with their clothes. Surely the much less classic It bags of recent years will find their prices crashing even further.

Angelina Jolie Outwits Journalists--Sign Of End Times? Or Business As Usual?

Angelina.Jolie.MagazineCover.022 (Small) Angelina Jolie continues to confound. In a NY Times piece by Brooks Barnes, we learn that she can make some magazine editors jump through hoops,  write big checks for exclusive photos of her and her family, and to not use Brangelina when referring to her and her husband, Brad Pitt. I hope you're all sitting down when you read the whole story. Breathless quotes abound:

“She’s scary smart,” said Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of Us Weekly and Star magazines.

Fuller knows scary like the back of her hand, but smart? Let's ponder the impossibility of that, shall we?

Ms. Jolie expertly walks a line between known entity and complete mystery, cultivates relationships with friendly reporters and even sets up her own photo shoots for the paparazzi.

And as both the paparazzi and their customers make money off those photos,  she's been very savvy about making sure she or her favorite charities get paid.

And with the kind of keen insight that gets you a job at the nation's most important paper, Barnes surmises:

The persona that Ms. Jolie projects on screen tends to be intimidating and physical. She is not the girl next door.

No shit, Sherlock, as the kids say. Or used to say.

Jolie either grew up or remade her image, after her divorce from Billy Bob Thornton, depending on your POV. Writing about her meeting with Kashmir earthquake victims,  Barnes tosses in a quote from ancient flack, Michael Levine, who was probably the only person around willing to give a mean-spirited statement:

“Presto, they come out looking like serious people who have transformed a silly press obsession into a sincere attempt to help the needy,”

Except for those needy publicists and PR firms--does she think about them? Does she?

With a Q score of 24 ( a likeability scale), Jolie is a popular movie star. Want proof? This piece is the most-emailed story in the Business section (but only 17th  in the whole paper.)  Readers vary in their opinions of Jolie, but most agree that this piece was feeble.

Slideshow from an earlier story here.