Guest Post: Robin Abrahams on Michelle Obama

Today’s guest post comes to us from the fabulous Robin Abrahams. Prepare to be impressed, friends: Robin writes the popular “Miss Conduct” social advice column for the Boston Globe Sunday magazine and has co-authored articles in the Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, and the Wall Street Journal. A Cambridge resident with a PhD. in research psychology from Boston University, Robin has a regular segment (“Social Studies”) on WGBH radio’s “Emily Rooney Show.” And she’s just as smart, funny, and fascinating as you’d expect someone with that resume to be.

Since we’re coming right up on Inauguration Day – and since most of the style world (myself included) is totally enamored of the First Lady’s fashion sense – Robin wrote a fantastic piece on why we all fell hard for Mrs. O. And her answer will surprise you!

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Michelle Obama got my attention as a fashion icon during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The fist bump, the purple sheath dress and sleek bob that evoked Jackie Kennedy and “Mad Men” and Laura Petrie, the tough studded belt, the pearls just a little too big. Just enough to let us know she was going to play this game her own way. I was on a one-way train to Girlcrush City.

I’ve always had a soft spot for First Ladies, having to make theater out of the most intimate relationship of their lives and feared for their influence while having no real power. Women of my generation, Gen-Xers, have been relatively deprived of First-Lady style. Mrs. Reagan, though glamorous, was too old and tiny and fancy to be a practical role model. Both Mrs. Bushes dressed as though they would have much preferred to have been left alone with a good book, a look which evoked my sympathy but which I was all too skilled at achieving on my own. Mrs. Clinton’s recent uniform of black suit, ponytail, red lipstick and shades is straight-up gangster steez, but she was an awkward and out-of-place First Lady.

And then came Mrs. O. To understand what she means to the women of Generation X, you have to understand this: Michelle Obama is Veronica Sawyer in “Heathers.”

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For a woman of a certain age, there was no more fundamental cinematic experience than seeing “Heathers” for the first time, in our pre-Columbine innocence. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is pretty and socially adept enough to be accepted by the mean girls, too smart and good-hearted to stay one of them forever, and tough enough to put them out of business for good. And she looked amazing doing it, in grey jersey and black grosgrain and colored tights. Winona Ryder will never be a shoplifter or (shudder) Spock’s mom to us—she will always be Veronica.

So when Mrs. O came on the scene—well, many of us swooned. Stylewise, Michelle Obama is to standard First Lady attire as Veronica Sawyer is to the Heathers.

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Look how Veronica is softer, quirkier than the Heathers. First Lady style has typically been stiff and authoritative: First Ladies have psychological if not literal shoulder pads. They are armored. Like Veronica, Mrs. O shows her shoulders. She is simultaneously softer and more feminine, and also tougher and more streetwise, than any First Lady has dared to be. She wears cardigans when they wear blazers, bares her legs when they wear pantyhose.

Taking Veronica Sawyer as a fashion role model was one thing. But Mrs. Obama is six feet tall and the color of chocolate, while I am five foot four and the color of halvah. Mistakes were made. The vernal green and yellow argyle cardigan made me look like a depressed Smithie circa 1954. Giant flower pins on my collarbone kept catching the edge of my peripheral vision causing me to jump and swat at myself like a cat. Of the empire-waist dress we shall not speak, save to say that you-who-know-who-you-are can stop apologizing, already. Even my doctor asked.

And there’s the part where I’m not the First Lady of the United States, and while I too like J Crew and mixing up high- and low-end pieces, in my wardrobe the J Crew is the high end. Then again, I’m not seventeen and dating a psychopath (anymore), but that doesn’t mean don’t still have a lot to learn from Veronica Sawyer. Without further ado, to celebrate the 25 years of “Heathers” and four more years of Mrs. O, I give you Four Fashion Things I Learned from Michelle Obama and Veronica Sawyer.

1. Limit Your Colors OR Your Shapes (or Both). Ever notice how Michelle Obama is almost always wearing either a sheath dress (from knee to floor length), a full-skirted dress, or pants and a loosely fitted top? You will now. Mrs. O looks wonderful in a wide range of colors—pastels to black and white to neon to jewel tones—and she wears them all. Her styles, however, are uniform.

Veronica Sawyer, by contrast, wore everything from miniskirts to Chanel-cut suits to jeans and pullovers to leggings and whatever we wore over leggings the first time around—always in black, blue, grey, and white.

Most of us don’t look good in all the shapes and all the colors, and those of us who do, don’t have the closet room or the headspace to organize it all, anyway. Keeping a consistent palette of either colors or shapes makes it easier to combine outfits, shop for missing pieces, and figure out how to incorporate new trends.

2. Accessories: Go Big or Go Home. Monocles, flower brooches, military medallions, statement necklaces, armloads of bangles—okay, maybe not the monocles. But the power of an accessory to make an outfit yours, and to ever so slightly suggest that you don’t take yourself too seriously, can’t be overstated. This winter, I’ve been getting a lot of use out of a leopard-print oversized scarf and an orangey coral bracelet. My colors tend to be mixed neutrals and dark earth tones, so these add a little pop of color and play.

(Big accessories work better if you keep a consistent color-and-or-shape profile, otherwise you can edge dangerously close to that fashion zone known as “kooky.”)

3. Dress to Move. Mrs. Obama’s fitness campaign is called “Let’s Move,” and she wears clothes you can imagine moving in: dancing, running for the bus, bending down to talk to children. What other First Lady looked as though she could Double-Dutch or hula-hoop whenever she wanted to? And how smashing and appropriate did Veronica Sawyer always look, whether fighting off a cowtipping date-rapist, fleeing the police, covered in soot and gunpowder, or playing croquet?

If you can’t move easily in a piece of clothing, it doesn’t fit right, and it’s not you, it’s it. So get it altered or find a different one or wear it anyway, but don’t blame your body.

4. Dress for Any Table in the Cafeteria. Unlike the Heathers, Veronica could sit at any table in the cafeteria. She didn’t wear a cheerleader’s uniform, or a black trenchcoat, or a slogan. Her style was a matter of individual expression, not tribal affiliation. Mrs. Obama, similarly, keeps a flexible profile: classic American prep mixed with urban edge, athletic practicality, high glamour, aesthetic adventuresomeness. It’s more than mere eclecticism—it’s a way of acknowledging, as another Gen-X teen classic would have it, that there’s a princess, a basket case, a brain, a jock, and a criminal inside every one of us. Dress like you know it.

Top image via BET. Heathers images via Drafthouse and Carry On Dancing.

  • Ruthe

    Thank you :)

  • Janet

    Fantastic analysis in the guest post.

  • http://marmota-b.blogspot.com Hana – Marmota

    I must admit that my favourite part of this post is “the color of halvah”. Oh yes.
    And the Dress to Move tip – definitely, good fit, feeling good in the clothes no matter what you’re doing – that’s crucial.

  • http://www.fashionistastyle1.blogspot.com Londyn

    Such a great post!! I love her style too :)

  • Litenarata

    I’m pretty sure I’m within the target age range for this post, but I got tired of it and stopped reading because I have no idea who Veronica is, so half of it was totally meaningless. Sorry.

    But I’m a huge fan of Michelle and her style!

    • JB

      I’m glad it’s not just me! I really like Robin’s writing and I too am about the same age, but there was nothing formative about Heathers for me either. I’m with you on the First Lady though!

  • Dorothea

    This post is a delight. (I wish I could say the same for Mrs. O’s new bangs. Veronica didn’t have bangs!!) I particularly love the point about keeping a consistent style or palette and how that allows for greater room to play with accessories.

  • Cas

    “but she was an awkward and out-of-place First Lady”

    This bummed me out…

  • http://saveyourpinmoney.blogspot.com sigourney

    Hm. My age range may not be targeted by this article. A couple of valid points are made, and well made.

    What does irk me is the dismissal of Ms. Clinton. The awesome work she’s done far outweighs any sartorial considerations. Not to speak of what she was up against!

  • Katherine

    I think the film Heathers might not have been as popular outside if the united states. I am 32 so I think I am on the cusp of gen x, and have heard of the film, but have never actually seen it; (I live in the UK permanently now, but am in effect an air force brat from the eighties so understand cultural references from both countries). I think it is a darker, sort of version of Mean Girls? Where Winona Ryder’s character is like Lindsey Lohan’s, a bit? With a lot more shoulder pads? Anyway, I love Michelle Obama’s look, and think she has an approachable personality and style, yet commands respect and is someone to look up to. After one of the previous comments mentioned new bangs I looked up a picture and I have to say I kind of like them… I’ve about half grown out a fringe, and her sleek new haircut is (almost) making me want to have them cut back in again. If I could cut them myself and not have them look sticky out and too short I would definitely do it, but I just can’t justify the expense right now, :-(.

  • http://secondhandwardrobe.com Cheryl

    The wonderful writing and style insights in this piece kept me entertained over my morning bowl of oatmeal. Bouncing from the Mrs. Obama and Veronica–hilarious. And I hadn’t noticed that one key to Michelle’s fabulous style is limited shapes combined with a wide range of color. Being a petite person myself, I could relate to the embarrassing errors regarding the empire dress.

  • Linda L

    Wonderful post! Love the advice and the nostalgia.

  • http://viktoriasbookshelf.blogspot.com Viktoria

    “Her style was a matter of individual expression, not tribal affiliation.” This was the part of the analysis that stuck with me, and I will keep this piece of advice close to my heart in future.

    I think mrs Obama is wonderful, and one of the most stylish women in the world. For a while I had a folder on my hard drive with pictures of her, as inspiration. Our figures are alike, though our colour is not. I would never have started wearing belts again, if not for her.

  • bubu

    Loved this. Have to admit the flashback to Heathers (one of my favorite movies as a teen) made it all the more enjoyable. But upon re-reading, I think you could learn a LOT about Mrs. O’s style without getting any of the Heathers’ references, and all of it is highly practical to apply in one’s own life. Well done!

  • Cat

    The “fist bump” photo of the Obamas was really a turnoff to me, as is the non- stop slobbering over them by the so-called Mainstream Media.

    I read fashion blogs to get away from politics and have stopped reading fashion blogs that find the need to “go there.”

    I visit Already Pretty daily but that will change if “Michelle” is to be a frequent feature.

  • Ericka

    What a tremendous post! I really enjoyed it, as a girl who completely related to Veronica and a woman who is completely under the spell of Michelle.

  • Anna

    @Cat: I’m sorry that you cannot separate your political views from your sartorial ones; I felt that the author was not making a point in favor of Michelle Obama’s politics, but about her fashion. She could have just as easily been examining the fashion choices of a movie star or an author, or a character from a movie as she did Veronica. I can understand not liking someone’s politics, but ya gotta admit, the lady has style!

  • Kylara7

    Yes to Michelle Obama and having a First Couple that seem genuinely warm and loving with each other :) I love seeing them together and they look fantastic.

    I am also a fan of Dress To Move. Having spent most of my life in dance or sports, which means clothing designed to move in, I have zero patience with street clothing that binds, cuts, rides up or down, or keeps me from doing what humans do, which is MOVE. Fashion clothing that seems made for standing around, taking short steps, never bending, or never having to run for the bus? I don’t buy it.

  • Amy

    I absolutely loved this post. I will admit that I’m the perfect target for it–I even owned the movie. My favorite line is “Unlike the Heathers, Veronica could sit at any table in the cafeteria.” I often find myself trying to dress for the people I will be around–to try and be accepted, etc. This is a great way to remember to dress for myself–and for every table.

    Thanks for contributing.

  • Nomi

    This is the best-written, most entertaining guest post you have ever had! And I’m a fan of your guest posters.