January 20th, 2009
06:12 AM ET

The message in the dress

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/01/20/inauguration.balls/art.obamas.afp.gi.jpg caption="President-elect Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, are expected to attend all 10 official inaugural balls."]

Erica Hill
AC360° Correspondent

In many ways, it feels strange to focus so much attention on one dress – and to have it be the focus of such a historic night. But every four years we do it, and tonight will not be different. I’m sure plenty of you will be looking at the pictures Wednesday morning, as well.

I’m talking, of course, about Michelle Obama’s inauguration gown.

The discussion until this evening will come with a healthy dose of speculation – will it be Narciso Rodriguez? Maria Pinto? Will she choose color? Glitz? Scale her gown back a bit to be a bit more recession-friendly? Ahhh, the questions.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony is a historian at the National First Ladies Library in California. This man knows everything about the First Ladies, and that includes some very important dress knowledge. Still, I was surprised to hear him equate those frocks with the bible used for the President’s swearing-in.

“The inaugural gown has taken on significance akin to the holy grail of inauguration day,” Anthony said. “It’s right up there in terms of important symbolic tangible items with the bible that the president, each president, individually decides to use in their ceremony.”

Anthony went on to say the inauguration gown really is more than just a dress, it is the symbol of a new administration and a new beginning.

Michelle Obama’s fashion sense has been a hot topic since she first appeared on the campaign trail, so it’s no surprise there is chatter about her inauguration gown. She’s been compared to Jackie Kennedy, but celebrity stylist and Harper’s Bazaar contributing editor Mary Alice Stephenson says that while both are fashion icons, it’s not for the same reasons.

“ Jackie Kennedy, when she showed up on inauguration night in an ivory sheath dress and cape that she designed (…), I think there was a collective ‘Wow!’. She brought glamour to the White House but she was so beautiful and so glamorous it almost seemed unreal,” Stephenson explained.

“What makes Michelle so special is that she seems normal, she seems like she's your best friend. She has the same kind of figures that most of us have as women, she dresses in a very American way - classics with a twist. She's more approachable and more real and I think women are really responding to that.”

Fashion has always been important to Michelle Obama, but we’ve seen her style change as the campaign progressed. “She understands the power of clothes to send a message,” Stephenson told me, “and you will see through the course of the last couple of years, as Barak has risen, you've seen her change the way she dresses. As a lawyer she's really dressing in dark clothes, boxy suits. In the past few years, you've seen her embrace this feminine, gentle colorful way of dressing, which I think really shows that she understands how to send a message with what she wears.”

What will tonight’s message be?

Stay tuned.

Filed under: Erica Hill • Inauguration • Michelle Obama
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Beverly White

    Pleaaaaazzzzzz......Michelle wasn't going to a prom! It was an inaugral ball. She needed something flowing to give her body grace. She is as stiff as a board and her clothing choices leave a lot to be desired. She couldln't relax long enough to melt into her husbands arms for the dances, no matter how hard she tried. Relax Michelle and enjoy life. It was very difficult to watch each ball as the president tried to relax and give the public what they wanted to see but Michelle was unrelenting and stiff to the point of being rude.......sorry! Got to tell it like it is, can't make up glowing comments when they aren't there!

    January 21, 2009 at 9:17 am |
  2. KIm

    Obama's got a burgandy red tie on and Mrs. Obama would have been a show stopper in a deep vibrant tone. Get the straight lined jacket taken in to accent her waist line and we don't like the way the dress pulls and wrinkels in the front. It's wearing her,she's not wearing that design.Aretha Frankin's hat was stunning and Dr. Biden looks up to date and great ! Don't put Mrs. Obama in those old boring stately,dull designs and she's to young and sharp ! She's not an old lady !. How rushed is Mrs. Obama looking over all these designs they're over whelming her with. The shoes could have been dyed to match.

    January 20, 2009 at 1:28 pm |
  3. Isabel, RJ, Brazil

    Michelle came to the White House in Tuesday using a gold dress and a clear coat on "brocard" in the same tone, a creation of the American of Cuban origin designer Isabel Toledo.

    January 20, 2009 at 12:59 pm |

    i know the angels in heaven, are rejoicing this day!!! i know my mama is.

    January 20, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  5. john mcmillan


    January 20, 2009 at 12:47 pm |
  6. KIm

    After years in fashion we're all critical to a fault of perfection and excited about Mrs. Obama's support in the industry. Personally,have five bankruptsy's on my resume . Burlington Industries gone and others closed. Let's see them returned to the US . A balance of interests, we've seemed to have lost and shipped else where. Open and supportive of all our fashion designers and it's a competitive industry that Mrs. Obama will give a for sure, "certain boost." Strike a pose, Vogue ! Not crazy about what's she wearing today and it's to frumpy. Rhine stones a little gaudy ....pickie,pickie !

    January 20, 2009 at 12:43 pm |
  7. Marjorie Stevens

    Her choice this inauguration season has been good. I love the soft yellow floral textured coat over the soft yellow dress with olive green gloves as an accent.

    The wind blows, Michelle's hair moves, as it should be. It is fresh and young; not helmet head that so many women have (e.g., Laura Bush). To many women over-use hairspray.

    January 20, 2009 at 12:36 pm |
  8. J. Archer

    OK, I'm just gonig to come right out and say it! Mrs. First Lady needs help with her style choices. The "black widow": dress she wore for the election night was dreadful and her lpretty ittle girl was dressed all in black as if she were at a funeral!

    It's deep, cold winter in the nation's capitol and Mrs. O's choice to wear her coats open and flapping in the wind with fly-away hair at the pre-inauguration festivities ljust ooks messy and unkempt. – like a college kid on campus. She needs a good designer like the American icon, Ralph Lauren, to pull her look together and help her make the right public statement for a president's wife. It's great to project a young, hip image but will someone please help her do it with style!

    January 20, 2009 at 11:00 am |
  9. Isabel, RJ, Brazil

    Much speculation here in Brazil. Who made the golden clothes of Michelle?
    Some say it wasn't Maria Pinto.

    Erica, who was it?

    January 20, 2009 at 10:57 am |
  10. Isabel, RJ, Brazil

    Fashion! Trend! Style!

    Fashion goes far beyond dress well or adequately. Being in fashion is to have a correct posture, dignified, honest and above all respect its own personality.
    It is extremely important integrate the beauty with fashion, because with this women can find and compose their style more easily. Not only women but also men. The men have shown as much (or more) style that women, see our friend Anderson Cooper, always elegantly dressed (here I make a reservation, a personal opinion: elegantly dressed except in places of "turbulence", who invented that all Journalists have to wear shirt with giants pockets, the La Vest of photographer or another stereotype – I think it's terrible!)

    But fashion is the trend of consumption in the present. Fashion is made up of various styles that may have been influenced in several ways. Accompanying the clothing and the time, which incorporates the use of simple clothes in day-to-day to a larger context, political, social and sociological.

    The world today needs the style of Michelle. The people are somewhat lost on fashion and style. And nothing is better than starting to look for people chic and full of style (and observation is a great point of departure).

    Michelle Obama is the first lady of style. Mrs. Obama is cool, elegant and discreet.
    She isn't supporter of exhibitionism fashion-political, quite the contrary. While all brands in the world (mainly the USA) wanted to wear her, she preferred brands more discreet. Fashion is well with yourself and that Michelle is literal.

    January 20, 2009 at 9:58 am |
  11. shanika

    erica in every woamns life the correct dress is always important. it's nothing new but we talking history here! with out a doubt we have a jayz loving president and a strong powerful, styling icon first lady.

    January 20, 2009 at 9:39 am |
  12. Annie Kate

    In all the talk about the dress we get to see the dress Jackie wore, and Roslynn Carter, and Hilary Clinton....but I've not heard anyone mention the dresses of Lady Bird Johnson, or Pat Nixon, or Barbara Bush or even Laura Bush – I would love to see what they wore too. I think Michelle will wear something classic and softly elegant and she will not only wow the new President but the rest of us as well.

    January 20, 2009 at 8:48 am |
  13. Dominique Pavageau

    As an African American college student, the perataining event has opended so many doors of questions and desires on the impact of American history. To see so many people express their support for Barack is quite motivating. When I watch the news nationally and localling it provides a perspective of just how many people are affected by this change. I think the country has an understanding of Barack's intentions and have accepted them with open arms. I think we all understand it will take time, but the fact that majority of U.S citizens elected this man to do the job, brings optimism throughout the struggle we've already endured.

    God Bless America

    Dominique Pavageau of Seattle, WA
    Attending college in Daytona Beach, FL (Bethune Cookman Univ)

    January 20, 2009 at 8:24 am |
  14. Jennifer - Michigan

    Hi Erica,
    Good Morning. It will be neat to see what she ends up wearing today. I bet it will be a gorgeous gown! She wears such beautiful and colorful clothes; it will be fun to see what it will be. She might even start a new trend. Hope you have a good day – stay warm!

    January 20, 2009 at 6:50 am |