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What is the FLOTUS’ Role in Fashion?

November 3, 2011

Refinery 29 brings up a good discussion in a post today. For Halloween, Michelle Obama wore a festive orange and gold striped dress from Asos:

And a discerning eye noted that the dress was similar to a Diane Von Furstenberg:

Some news sources, like the Huffington Post, have even cited it as the DVF dress while reporting on the event. Is it possible that Obama wore a designer knockoff? And, if so, does it matter?

One side is praising her for wearing what The People would wear, inexpensive fast-fashion despite having the means to afford the real thing, especially in the current economic state. The other criticizes the fact that, as the ultimate role model for the country, she should take care to err on the side of caution when it comes to any ethical conundrum, whether it be eating healthy or honoring copyright infringement on design. It just so happens that there is another factor in the debate to twist the knife – DVF has openly criticized Obama for not strictly adhering to promoting only American designers, is the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and is active in the force working to protect designers from fast fashion knock-offs. So, of all the people to knock-off, knowingly or not, DVF was the worst possible designer to chose.

My main issue with the whole ordeal is this: how could we expect Obama to even know that the Asos dress was possibly ripping off the DVF? I consider myself pretty well-informed on the collections, and have been able to spy knock-offs in my favorite fast fashion chains before, but in this case I would’ve never looked at that dress and said “Oh, yes, that is reminiscent of the Savannah Striped Dress from the Fall ’11 collection.” This appears to only be a scandal because Obama has been held up in the highest regard when it comes to fashion since Jackie O. Her tastes have sparked trends, launched careers, and have had enormous influences on retail value and popularity. She has been praised before for mixing high (Jason Wu) and low (J. Crew) in her wardrobe to actually have her own sense of style. Ideally, yes, I think the pieces she chooses from low-end brands should be of a completely original design (the argument of how original an item of clothing can even be at this point is a discussion for another time), and I would certainly argue against her promoting knock-offs, but it seems to me this was an innocent mistake.

(But if she needs a stylist to keep an eye on things in order to protect her from future scandal, I am available. The Obamas read my blog, right?)

The larger question at hand, however, is what exactly is the FLOTUS’ role in fashion? Obama’s decisions have been scrutinized more heavily than any other female in politics, from her arm-baring dress in her official White House portrait, to wearing shorts, to the politics behind which designers she wears to which events. Since she actually seems to have an interest in fashion, it makes sense that people have taken note, but is it worth an uproar every time she makes an arguable misstep since she is not connected to the fashion world whatsoever? Does she have to be the perfect example for every single issue facing the nation, no matter how niche? Why can’t we just let the woman be and let her wear what she feels like?

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