- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fresh off her historic inaugural-gown debut, Michelle Obama has begun the first 100 days of her reign as first lady of fashion with mixed reviews from leading style experts and commoners alike.

Following furious speculation, the first lady selected an inaugural ball gown designed by Jason Wu, a twentysomething Taiwanese-American designer from New York.

The gown — in ivory silk chiffon embellished with organza, Swarovski crystal rhinestones and silver-thread embroidery — was custom-designed and made especially for Mrs. Obama.

Yet the person most surprised by Mrs. Obama’s dress may have been the designer himself, who, according to spokeswoman Gina Pepe, was not aware his design had been chosen by the first lady until “he saw her walk on the stage.”

Now Mr. Wu’s gown will belong to the ages. Inauguration gowns traditionally are donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Historians will have plenty of time to gauge Mrs. Obama’s style quotient, but in the meantime, she is being watched closely by top style editors.

Hal Rubenstein, fashion director of In Style magazine, says Mrs. Obama’s choices have been strategic.

“For the inaugural, all the women tend to wear the same cashmere coats in patriotic colors, but Mrs. Obama chose a dress in yellow,” he says. “She stood out. Everybody knew where the first lady was.”

Mrs. Obama wore a shimmering lemon-grass dress and overcoat designed by Isabel Toledo for the swearing-in ceremony.

Mrs. Obama’s donning of green J. Crew gloves with her inauguration suit also served a purpose, according to Mr. Rubenstein. “She is trying to connect with America,” he says. “She wanted to wear something people could afford.”

The colorful cotton-candy-colored coats worn by Mrs. Obama’s daughters were also from J. Crew.

Mr. Rubenstein says Mrs. Obama’s “hourglass figure” also allows regular Janes to relate to her.

“She’s not a runway girl. She is not a size two.”

Mr. Rubenstein explains that Mrs. Obama’s one-shoulder inaugural gown complemented her “fuller figure” but says she should try higher heels, although she is nearly 6 feet tall barefooted.

“She does tend to slouch like a lot of tall women do because she does not want to be taller than her husband,” he says.

Other top fashionistas were delighted with the dress designed by Tracy Feith that Mrs. Obama wore to the church service at Washington National Cathedral.

“The graphic print was modern but appropriate, and she knows what works on her body,” says Sarah Haight, a fashion writer for Women’s Wear Daily. “I think we saw that she is willing to take chances on lesser-known designers, and she’s interested in standing out, as indicated by the embellishments on the clothes.”

Ms. Haight especially appreciated the “rosette detailing on the Wu dress and the lace on the Toledo coat.”

Tippi Shorter, celebrity colorist for Clairol Professional, says Mrs. Obama’s hair and makeup were in keeping with her minimalist approach to dressing.

“I thought Michelle Obama stayed true to her signature look,” she says. “I’m glad that she didn’t try to go out of the box with her style as she has become a trendsetter, and many women around the world are emulating her look.”

Michelle-watching was keeping some fashion lovers burning up the Internet.

Laurie Levine of Reston says she and three friends were online chatting on Facebook about the first lady’s wardrobe throughout the inaugural festivities.

Mrs. Levine says her chat buddies raved about Mrs. Obama’s daytime suit and dress but were in agreement that her inaugural gown was a miss.

“It was not flattering to her shape,” Mrs. Levine says. “I wanted something much more tailored. We all thought it was not that slimming.”

Criticism comes with the territory. Will Mrs. Obama be able to learn from it and improve gracefully over time?

“I think she should keep on doing what she is doing. She has made some very savvy moves so far,” Mr. Rubenstein says.

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