WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama’s fashionable clothing has become something of a given in her five-plus years as first lady. Yet her wardrobe still is the subject of endless public fascination and one long-simmering question: Who pays for those incredible outfits?
It’s no small matter. Her high-low fashion choices mix everyday, off-the-rack fare with custom creations from top designers whose gowns can run into five figures.
In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama has turned heads with a forest-green Naeem Khan dress at the opening of a new costume gallery at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She shimmered in a silver Marchesa gown at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. And her flowered shirtdress for a Mother's Day tea at the White House (recycled from an earlier event) hit the just right note for an audience of military moms.
It takes money to pull that off, month after month. Those three dresses by themselves could add up to more than $15,000 retail, not to mention accessories such as shoes and jewelry.
Is it the taxpayers who foot the bill? No. (Despite what critics say.)
Is it Mrs. Obama? Usually, but not always.
Does she pay full price? Not likely.
Does she ever borrow gowns from designers? No.
The financing of the first lady’s wardrobe is something that the Obama White House is loath to discuss. It’s a subject that has bedeviled presidents and their wives for centuries. First ladies are expected to dress well, but the job doesn’t come with a clothing allowance or a salary.
Mary Todd Lincoln racked up tens of thousands of dollars in clothing bills and considered selling manure from the White House grounds to pay them off, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. Jacqueline Kennedy’s father-in-law stepped in to finance her Oleg Cassini wardrobe to keep clothes from becoming a political liability for President John Kennedy. Nancy Reagan got grief for borrowing designer gowns and not always returning them or reporting them as gifts.
Laura Bush, in her memoir, said she was “amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy” as first lady.
For starters, the Obamas reported adjusted income of $481,000 last year, and assets worth $1.8 million to $7 million.
And like most people, Mrs. Obama (mostly her personal aide, really) looks for discounts.
And, for really big events, the first lady has an option not available to every fashionista.