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Michelle Obama’s Fashion Legacy Is Now Preserved in Paint

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It’s practically impossible for an appearance by the Obamas — in paparazzi photos, in interviews, in my inbox — to not catapult me into a blubbery nostalgia spiral. Today’s outing, in which the former first couple unveiled their official portraits commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, prompted a very specific nostalgia for me, namely, remembering all over again how special clothing was to Michelle Obama’s identity.

The artist of the former first lady’s portrait, Amy Sherald, painted her wearing a multicolored gown with geometric shapes. Even in a painting that’s already more abstract than your average first lady portrait, the dress is of note. It’s more prominent, more central to the painting, than the outfits of Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush were in their official portraits. It’s more glamorous, more dramatic, and quirkier. It’s more Fashion.

Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama Artist: Amy Sherald; Photo: Mark Gulezian/NPG

All of which is fitting. Michelle Obama’s fashion was fun. She wore bright colors, embraced interesting proportions, dipped into new trends, and revived unlikely old ones. She deliberately chose small designers, American designers, designers of diverse backgrounds who might not otherwise be primed for industry stardom. Her choices were unexpected, her taste adventurous.

A professional woman should never be judged first and foremost by what she wears, just as a professional man should not (and rarely is). But when a first lady so openly, so exuberantly embraces clothing as a creative outlet and mode of communication, it is tempting — and indeed, altogether appropriate — to embrace it right back. We dissected her outfits, interpreted her choices, ascribed meaning to her chosen designers.

And we still do. In a speech at the unveiling on Monday, Sherald explained:

The dress chosen for this painting was designed by Milly. It has an abstract pattern that reminded me of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s geometric paintings. But Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces.

The choice to commission a dress by Milly designer Michelle Smith is a bit surprising, given it’s not a brand Obama wore particularly often (though she wore a Milly shirt for her final walk through the White House). One might also have expected Sherald to choose a black designer, given that her painting is the first-ever official first lady portrait created by an African-American artist.

But as Philip Kennicott noted in the Washington Post, Milly represents “tasteful but not extravagant department-store fashion that recalls the first lady’s mix of couture and comfortable pragmatism.”

More importantly, thanks to Sherald’s explanation, the dress ended up shining a light on individuals in a way only the Obamas seemingly can; in this case, celebrating a small community of black women with a special history and tradition the rest of the world might never have known about otherwise. It’s the sort of fashion statement that is so distinct to Michelle Obama and her approach to clothing. I miss it.