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Picture the world eight years ago. Flip phones were ubiquitous, Breaking Bad was in its very first season, and a woman named Michelle Obama was capturing everyone’s attention.
As the wife of a presidential candidate, Michelle could have faded into the background. But her outfits — the bright colors, big prints, statement belts, and other unusually trendy items — caught our eye. This was a woman who was keyed into fashion and clearly wanted to have fun with her clothes.
And it was exhilarating to watch, or, for many of us, to track obsessively. That obsession is what prompted Mary Byun, who held a day job in advertising, to start a blog called Mrs. O that documented every single outfit worn by the First Lady from September 2008 through 2014. The blog exploded and eventually led to the book Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy.
As the real Mrs. O completes her final days in the White House, we asked Byun to reflect on her viral blog, the power of fashion, and the enduring appeal of Michelle.
Racked: What was it about the atmosphere back in 2008 that inspired you to start the blog?
Mary Byun: There was a defining moment. I was watching the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and Michelle Obama gave a speech — I believe it was the first night. And she wore this teal Maria Pinto dress with an Erickson Beamon brooch. At the time, the look was so fresh to me in terms of the political landscape, and I was so inspired by her as a person and interested in how she was using fashion to convey creativity and other messages. Throughout the Democratic convention, I felt her look was projecting and communicating something different than we were used to seeing in the political realm.
So I started researching. The funny thing is that now, fashion PR is so different. But back then, we were only two years into Twitter, and it wasn’t commonplace that brands would broadcast celebrities or public figures were wearing their clothing. So no one said “Oh, Michelle Obama wore our dress during the Democratic National Convention.” I started researching, and I thought, “I can’t be the only one interested in this.” That was the impetus for starting the blog, just being curious and not being able to find information.
What was it about Michelle Obama’s style that invited such curiosity?
She had just such a great democratic mix in that she was wearing high-end and she was introducing brands like Gap and Target. I looked to her style and felt a sense of aspiration but also accessibility, and I would guess that mix was appealing to other people.
What were the reactions from readers as Mrs. O started gaining traction?
It’s interesting. Early on, especially in 2008 and early 2009 as the Obamas took office, there was this sense of optimism and so much enthusiasm, including for people following her style. The site would crash, there would be so much traffic! Around the inauguration and then the President and First Lady’s first trip to Europe, anticipation for what Michelle Obama would wear at Buckingham Palace and during these state visits was at fever pitch. It felt like every style move she made was press-worthy in the early days.
Then there was a sort of “second chapter,” these style controversies over the next couple of years. There was always anticipation around what should would wear to a state dinner and what designer she would choose. Looking back, it seems a little bit silly now, but there were definitely moments of controversy.
One was when the First Family went on vacation to the Grand Canyon and Mrs. Obama wore shorts, and whether that was appropriate for a First Lady. Or the Chinese state dinner when she wore the Alexander McQueen dress and it was very newsworthy that she had broken from her tradition at the time of wearing designers who in some way had heritage ties to the visiting state dinner guests. I feel like there haven’t been the same sort of controversies in the last couple of years.
Why do there seem to be fewer “controversies” now? Do you think we’re just paying less attention to what she wears, or did the things that were so atypical then — the flats, the shorts, the sleeveless tops — truly change the norms for First Ladies and women in politics?
In the beginning, she didn’t have Let’s Move and the programs to champion young women and girls. So I feel like people now have a more well-rounded sense of Michelle Obama, whereas in the first couple of years, there was so much dialogue around her clothes. Especially in the second administration, she’s initiated so many programs that there’s been more to talk about beyond her style. Focus has naturally gone elsewhere.
But certainly she’s remained this wildly popular figure and charted her own style course. As she broke with norms, there is a level of people adjusting to that, and then it kind of creates a new norm.
There’s always debate over whether the obsessive interest in political fashion is valid, or whether it’s unfair scrutiny of someone in a position of power, about whom there are more important things to discuss. Was that ever a conflict for you?
I definitely felt a conflict personally. When I was doing the Mrs. O blog, it was inevitable to get a little bit into politics, but I wanted to try to keep it as removed as possible and focus on the style story Michelle Obama was telling. But at times it did feel like a disservice when there was more of a story to tell, in terms of the initiatives and movements she was doing. So yeah, I definitely felt a bit of a sense of conflict.
But at the same time, I do think what she was doing and has continued to do with style was not superficial. There is meaning and thought put into what she wears, not just from the aesthetic standpoint, but in the designers she’s choosing and their backgrounds. That’s what captivated me in the beginning and continued to keep me really interested. So even the style story itself, while it wasn’t reflective of everything Michelle Obama was doing as First Lady, there was a depth to it and layers that were worth revealing and talking about.
How did her style story compare to past First Ladies to you?
I followed what Jacqueline Kennedy wore as First Lady and Hillary Clinton and the Bushes, especially around inaugurations. But I felt that Michelle was doing something really different, with the range of designers she was wearing and also wearing accessible, mainstream brands. That felt, to me, to be without a historical precedent. But it was also a different time, with social media — this information wasn’t available in the past.
She clearly connected with mainstream shoppers. Did you also see her influence on the actual fashion industry?
I remember especially in those first years, there was a lot of chatter about there being a dress-and-cardigan moment — how that seemed to be a staple combination for her, and you saw that reflected in mass apparel. That’s probably the most pronounced moment of direct influence I can think of. You would also hear anecdotal stories in those days, like from J.Crew, that there was a pencil skirt she wore in one of the first trips abroad that then sold out within a few hours.
The real trend I always think of was the kitten heels. Oh, and sleeveless!
Yeah, now that we have distance from it, it seems so silly to me that it was newsworthy — that it would somehow be controversial to wear a sleeveless dress to, say, the State of the Union address.
But now it’s the norm, evident by a generational divide: Look at Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, and it’s all pantsuits and jackets. Look at younger female politicians — and even Claire Underwood or Kerry Washington on TV — and they all look a little like Michelle with those sleeveless dresses.
I remember reading, a couple years ago, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep saying that she had modeled that character’s style on Michelle Obama to some extent.
We’re clearly at the end of an era. How, in your mind, has Michelle Obama’s style been important?
I think in terms of the generational shift. I think she broke a mold and she’s seen as an incredibly popular figure who’s known for her strength and intellect, but she’s still got a very feminine style sensibility, and I think that’s a shift. You don’t have to wear a power suit to project power.
Then there are just so many designers where I wonder if the American public would have known about them if not for her. Would the American public have known about Jason Wu in early 2009 had Michelle Obama not worn his gown for the inauguration? He was sort of just coming into his own; I think he had only had a few seasons of shows at that point. She really introduced him to the American public so much earlier than he probably would have been otherwise.
There are so many other stories like that, designers that she championed and introduced to a larger audience. I’m sure she had an incredible positive influence on their careers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.