Who cares what the First Lady wears? The stock market, for one. Since the Inauguration, every time Michelle Obama has worn a J. Crew outfit, the company's stock has enjoyed a boost, and the items she has chosen have sold out. Michelle's sleeveless dresses have sparked a national dialogue about appropriateness, and her decision to wear a cardigan sweater to visit Queen Elizabeth provoked an international debate about etiquette. But watching the attire of the nation's First Ladies is hardly a new sport. Pat Nixon's cloth coat and Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hats provoked plenty of conversation in their day. "What First Ladies wear and how they present themselves is indicative to what's happening in the country, in the world, and is a presentation of the Administration," says Susan Swimmer, author of Michelle Obama: First Lady of Fashion and Style (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers). Swimmer, a shrewd fashion watcher, is a contributing editor at More magazine. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Swimmer at her home in New York City.
TIME: Michelle is being compared to Jackie Kennedy. Is that an apt comparison?
Swimmer: No. I understand it because it's being called Obamalot, instead of Camelot. I think it's off the mark. I think the Kennedys really represented this fantasy-like, ethereal presentation. I think times are very different right now. I think the Obamas have a heavy dose of reality. I think Michelle Obama is very much a modern First Lady. Jackie played her role of First Lady fabulously, and certainly she did many, many good works, but Michelle is highly educated, very successful, was a corporate executive for years, really has achieved so much in her life, and I think she is a much more modern representation of what women are today. I think that goes to how she dresses and what she's wearing.
How does the fact that Michelle practiced law affect her style?
Well, her style has evolved ... Michelle very much in the beginning dressed like a corporate executive. Kind of big, boxy suits and turtlenecks, and her hair was in a flip. I think she used to dress in a much, much more conservative manner, and I feel that as the campaign progressed, she found herself and she expressed herself much more. She started incorporating color and wearing separates and really taking risks with the way she dressed.
What about her sleeveless dresses?
A lot has been written about all of her sleeveless looks, her sleeveless sheaths, which is definitely a hallmark of her, with her very well-toned arms. Was that statement-making in its own right? Maybe. She wasn't the first First Lady to wear sleeveless looks. Jackie Kennedy did, and Nancy Reagan did. But she's got a terrific well-toned physique, and so I think hers was more statement-making.
She took a lot of flak for what she wore to meet the Queen.
She did. I sort of thought it was Oscar de la Renta who ignited that. He gave an interview to Women's Wear Daily where he basically said, No one wears a sweater to see the Queen, or something like that. Then he [said] that she was using these young designers and he doesn't understand why she doesn't use the old masters. He was a little ticked about it. I think his feelings were hurt. And then he got a lot of flak for what he said, and then he went on The View to try to make nice. And he tried to backpedal. But you know, his feelings were hurt. He has dressed many, many First Ladies. I think he'd like to dress her.
Is there a lot of competition between designers to dress her?
Yes. Everyone would love to dress her, and she looks great ... I think everyone would like to be a part of that, but I think it was surprising that Mr. de la Renta was so vocal about how slighted he felt, whereas I think others have not been.
What would you consider her trademark looks?
I think there are a couple. I think sleeveless sheaths are one. Cardigans are another. I think she does a lot of belted looks. I think she does a lot of statement jewelry ... one or two pieces, well-chosen, bold, big. I think the empire waistline is probably one of her favorite silhouettes. I think those are the biggest. There are other things that she has done consistently. She wears a lot of pearls, double-stranded pearls. She certainly did for her official White House portrait.