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.")