April 10, 2009

Michelle Obama: More Than Fashion Sense

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Have you heard of Sleevegate? Best as I can tell, Sleevegate erupted over Michelle Obama’s sleeveless attire at her husband’s first Presidential address to Congress. Columnists in small, and even major papers such the New York Times have had their say on the matter. In the Times piece Maureen Dowd quotes fellow columnist David Brooks as saying of Mrs. Obama’s arms, “She’s made her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.” Everybody, it seems has an opinion about her arms.

What side are you on? Sleeveless or sleeves? You don’t care? Well apparently that puts you in the minority as lots of people have used tons of ink (and cyberspace) on the issue. There were also lots of articles and television shows directing women on how they too could get toned arms like the First Lady. Reportedly, trainers are now getting requests for “Michelle arms” from their clients.

People have scrutinized Michelle Obama’s entire appearance. Her hair has been the subject of much blogging and even her actual features have been commented upon (and not always kindly). I read some comments from people who were disappointed that the First Lady had not selected an African American designer for her Inauguration Day outfit, and others who complained that her ball gown was not made by an African American.

The attention to Michelle Obama’s clothing started before she became first lady. While on the campaign trail, she appeared on “The View”. At that appearance, she wore a $148 black and white dress, purchased from White House/Black Market. It was an instant hit and sold out overnight!

As the First Couple make their first splash overseas with a visit to Europe, (The President’s first foreign trip was actually to Canada in February.) the First Lady’s every outfit is coming under even greater scrutiny, as member of the international press join in on the commentary. The main event on this trip? Nothing to do with the G-20 summit that is supposedly the trip’s centerpiece! Nope. It was the fashion ‘face-off’ between Michelle Obama and France’s First Lady, former Victoria Secret model and singer, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy!

I haven’t seen anything written about the President’s clothing though. Who does he wear? Does his tie go well enough with his suit? How about his shoes? And was there a fashion faceoff between Presidents Obama and Sarkozy?

No doubt, lots of ink is spent on the appearance of women, regardless of their ”power” positions. And occasionally men get a dose: John Edwards and President Clinton both got a taste of this when the expensive haircuts they received from Hollywood hair-stylists caused a stir.

Why so much focus on Michelle Obama’s fashion sense? Aren’t there more interesting things about her to talk about? This is a woman who graduated cum laude from Princeton with a degree is in Sociology! Michelle Obama is also a graduate of the prestigious Harvard Law School. She served as adviser to her husband, our new President, when he joined her at the law firm of Sidley & Austin. She gave up corporate law for public service, working for Chicago Mayor Daley and then in the city office of planning and development. She was founding Executive Director for an AmeriCorps national service program. Later, Mrs. Obama served as Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago. In 2005 she became Vice President for Community and External Affairs at University of Chicago Hospitals.

From there, she took a leave of absence to join her husband on the campaign trail, a position from which she resigned this year. She is quite accomplished in terms of career, but it’s hard to tell that the First Lady has such an impressive resume when so much time is spent on whether she should cover her arms up. Or whether her ensembles for the Inauguration Day and evening balls were quite “right”.

Personally, I’m impressed by Michelle Obama, and I love to see pictures of her. But I’m impressed by all of what I’ve learned--not only by her appearance, although she does wear clothes well. Why are we paying so much attention to her appearance though? Why do we spend so much time on any woman’s appearance? That Michelle Obama is the U.S. First Lady heightens that focus. Add to that natural curiosity her straying from convention (Bare arms! And they’re toned! Wow!) and there is even more to talk about. What else could we say about a First Lady? Former First Lady Laura Bush did not engender this much attention to what she wore? How come?

Why haven’t we heard half as much about what Mrs. Obama is doing as First Lady as we have about her appearance? Have you heard much about her Women’s History event? Her trips to federal agencies? Her work regarding military families? Is sexism at work here? Racism?


Did you hear what German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband (Joachim Sauer) wore to the G-20 or NATO Summits? How about Nestor Kirchner, husband of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner? Me neither.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Michelle Obama: More Than Fashion Sense:


I don't think it is so much what she wears but how she handles it and makes her decision...We met her in Prague and found out if you're going to wear a bow, make it a big bow...the whole conversation displaying her character can be found at


or on Mrs-o.org at


This was a great post! I agree that Michelle is a very well-accomplished, intelligent woman. The focus on superficial things like what she's wearing certainly does not do her justice. Kudos to Janis!!

Thanks for this post. You are so right. It's ridiculous on what some magazines focus on. Thanks for filling me in on the more interesting parts of your new first lady.

I think we spend so much attention to Michelles waredrobe because she is young and has a sense of style. First lady bush didnt get this much attention because I think she had a more OLDER sense of her wardrobe. I loved the dress she wore when she gave the speech to young girls in London. Ive heard many accounts regarding michelle other than her "clothes" having a conference with the queen was one of them. I dont believe this sexism because women express themselves through there style of clothing or hair since the beginning of time

When I was scanning through the articles on this website to see which one caught my eye my attention went straight to this article about Michelle Obama and her amazing fashion sense. I love fashion and I am always the first to know about the new trends and styles, but I am also very studious and my education is my number one priority so to see someone as powerful as the First Lady of the United States of America being as influential and intelligent as she is and still showing off the latest fashion styles is a big change and really exciting to see. I think it is funny to see all the magazines out on stands that talk about her wardrobe and what she wore to each event and I think the reason why it is as big of a deal as it is, is because it is a huge change from our previous First Ladies who dressed very conservatively and did not put a big emphasis on their style. I do think though that it would be nice to see some things about what she is doing as First Lady because she is extremely educated and has a lot to offer, but people are looking past that because they would rather critique her on her outfit choice. I love the fact that Michelle Obama has a great sense of fashion and obviously it stands out because you see her on the cover of People and US Weekly more than you see Jessica Simpson or The Octomom. No First Lady has stood out because of fashion since Jackie Kennedy, so it is refreshing to see a new face come to light.

All the talk about her attire is kind of ridiculous if you ask me. I thought it was very interesting to hear about her past and it interests me to hear what she has accomplished, but i could care less about what she wears to present her self. I like how they compared how the media is "all over this", meanwhile we have not heard anything about how what specific pieces of clothing president Obama is wearing. I dont think it has to do with racism, but it disappoints me how fashion is polluting our word day by day.

Everyone making a big deal out of what Michelle Obama wears is rediculous! Yes a first lady should look presentable and sophisticated. Well guess what she does. Wearing a dress that is sleeveless does not make a person look less sophisticated or presentable. If Michelle Obama wants to wear sleeveless garmets then let her. She still looks like a first lady. Everyone should realize that Michelle Obama is a strong and intelligent women. She does not let the media change who she is. I think everyone should realize that, and be congratulating Michelle on her lifes achievements instead of judging her for what she wears.

I feel people need to look past the clothes she wears. She dresses very cute. If she weren't the first lady everyone would think her outfits are wonderous. She needs to be judged on her character and her drive. She needs to be judged on how she will help out Obama and won't drag him down. Everyone expects her to dress like an older lady. She isn't too old and looks good for the age she is at. Any other woman in America would flaunt that too. I feel many people are just being too critical.

What really needs to be looked at is her previous accomplishments and how well she achieved those.

This is just like the female athletes dilemma...so many accomplished women so disgracefully belittled by picayunne subjects such as fashion. I read about fashion this week in my Sociology class, and to tell you the truth it'll pass. How society treats brilliant women, however, I'm not so sure. Michelle obviously has as much brains as she has beauty, I just wish society would acknowledge it a little more often.

This is about the right dose in everything: to me, fashion and style are important, nonetheless, spending a lot of ink and cyberspace on somebody's appearance is exaggerated. I agree with Sara Zendehnam (an author of one of these comments) that it's quite impressive to see a well-educated, powerful woman who owns the ability to take care of her outlook. Why, I see no difference in discussing First Lady's outlook and some other celebrity outlook - it's natural to express opinion on how one looks, it's a lot easier than to comment this person's education, for example. Less people are capable of profound analysis and deep knowledge, which are required for other sort of commentaries. As simple as that.

Completely agree with the post! If a woman with degrees from Princeton and Harvard can't get some attention for her brains, then there is some obvious sexism going on here.

I think citizens as a whole focus on Michelle Obama's fashion sense far too much rather than what she is doing with her role as the First Lady. She is one of the youngest First Ladies the USA has had in many years, so people should not expect her to dress older than her age. Just because she wears a sleeveless dress or moderate shorts on hot days out spent with her family does not mean she is being disrespectful or inappropriate. To me this is a form of sexism. People can only focus on her image instead of her amazing qualities she is bringing to our country. She does have a great sense of fashion, brings a young and cool vibe to the White House, and sets a great example for all women.

I agree that this is a form of sexism, but lets think about this from a more positive perspective. Michelle Obama is a role model to many. She exhibits the qualities women and girls aspire to, and yet, us "regular women" can relate to her because she shows us that you do not need ridiculously expensive clothing to look chic. White House/ Black Market is an easily accessible store and we feel if we can dress like Michelle Obama, or have fabulous arms like Michelle Obama, then maybe we can begin to imitate her.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Total Institution and Lifeworld | Main | Field Experiments and Racism »