Michelle Obama, First Recessionista?

Of all the media fawning over the soon-to-be First Family, none indicates that the mainstream media is out of touch with the American public more than the hailing of Michelle Obama's fashion sense. Her style choices represent “affordable high fashion,” as noted by NBC's Amy Robach on January 8.

Washington Post style reporter Robin Givhan celebrated Obama on January 15 for how “she smoothly shifts from designer dresses priced at more than $1,000 to mass market brands such as the Gap and H&M.” On Jan. 9, NBC offered the $400 J.Crew ensemble Obama wore during an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” as an example of “spending on a budget.” The New York Times noted the $148 dress Obama wore last summer for a “View” appearance in a Jan. 8 article.

“Today” co-host Meredith Vieira spoke with Stacy London, co-host of TLC's “What Not to Wear” on January 9 about Obama's impact on fashion:

MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Do you think that Michelle Obama wearing these clothes, like J.Crew or whatever, will result in more sales at the malls?

STACY. LONDON, Today Contributor: Absolutely.

VIEIRA: Without a doubt?

LONDON: Absolutely, without a doubt. Because again, you are seeing a woman who is so prominent, and it means so much to this country to see a first lady who understands that we are having tough economic times, and she is part of it. She is representative of it and can still look great and convinces other women to look great, too.

London echoed a line frequently used to describe Obama's clothing choices: that she “gets” she can't be seen wearing very expensive clothing when the country is in a recession.  CNN.com reported in December 2008, “As [Obama] coupled chic designer splurges with off-the-rack goodies from J.Crew, H&M, White House/Black Market and Target, fashion spectators say her ability to make a strong statement on a budget sends and important message during tough economic times.”  

Obama's hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune said November 12, 2008 of her Election Night ensemble that included a designer red and black dress by Narciso Rodriguez “that she topped the Rodriguez dress with a cardigan that looked as if it could have come from White House/Black Market warms her to a populace that, particularly in this economy, gravitates to affordable pieces.”

The Times even labeled Obama “U.S. Fashion's One Woman Bailout” because during the presidential campaign “she signaled an interest both in looking stylish and also in advancing the cause of American fashion and those who design and make it. She wore off-the-rack stuff from J. Crew and, at times controversially, designs by fashion darlings like Isabel Toledo, Thakoon Panichgul and Narciso Rodriguez.”

Affordable, really?


Obama may draw attention to American designers but by mentioning these designers in the same breath as mass retailers such as the Gap and H&M gives the impression that their collections are affordable. A search for Narciso Rodriguez clothing turned up a collection on the high-end Bergdorf-Goodman department store's Web site that ranged from $1,450 to $2,200.     


Even J. Crew isn't as budget-friendly for the average American as the media would like people to think.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in 2007 for the United States was $50,740 or roughly $962 per weekThe much-hailed $400 J.Crew ensemble would likely bust a family's budget as it is 41 percent of the average weekly income in the United States.  

To further indicate how out of touch the mainstream media is with the concerns of the average person, AP writer Laurie Kellman encouraged Obama inauguration revelers to “go for glitz, forget economy” when dressing for the big day. Kellman's article offered tips on how to dress for less, but not before quoting Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing: “Just because the economy is in a downturn, it doesn't mean that style is going to be in a downtown.” Letitia Baldridge, former chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy, defended “going for the glitz,” saying “Just say you're doing it to help the economy.”

But should we really expect more from the mainstream media? A quick look at what's considered “budget” clothing by women's magazines suggests that to those in the media, $400 for one outfit or $148 for one dress is perfectly affordable.

Marie Claire is the magazine with the least idea of what “affordable” means to the average consumer. “Credit Crunch Chic” is emblazoned on the February cover, yet when readers turn to the feature in the magazine only one page is devoted to helping readers recreate a “look” “for under $100.” Even that headline misleads; the reader soon discovers that it's only the separate components of the featured outfit that cost under $100. Based on the items suggested by Marie Claire editors, consumers would spend upwards of $250 to recreate the one outfit.

A second page, “splurge vs. steal,” showcases a designer outfit (the splurge) and other, less costly components that would create the look for less (the steals). Again though, for the average consumer the steals would likely be categorized as major splurges. Three featured jackets range in price from $229 to $395. Shorts featured range from $130 to $196. Bags, from $182 to $298. Shoes from $69 to $550. A consumer would spend at least $610 to dress like a runway model using items suggested by Marie Claire.

Marie Claire's mission states, “Each issue is edited for a sexy, stylish, confident woman who is never afraid to make intelligence a part of her wardrobe.” But an intelligent woman probably wouldn't go into debt to create a runway look.

In Glamour magazine's January cover feature, “100 Perfect Outfits That are Already in Your Closet.” writers encouraged readers to work with the clothes they have,  However, this only works as long as a woman has skinny jeans, tall black boots, short boots, a printed blouse, an above-knee skirt and a sheath dress. If not, it would cost $1,808 to re-create the eight outfits showed on just two pages of the seven page feature. CMI came up with the cost based on the prices listed on the “Go Shopping” page located in the back of the magazine.

Ladies' Home Journal January issues touted “A $14 Fashion Statement” on the cover and actually lived up to its claim. In the feature titled “The Bold & the Beautiful, editors showcased 18 different accessories. Sure enough, one of the cocktail rings pictured was $14. Overall, five of the featured pieces cost less than $20, eight cost between $21 and $50 and five cost more than $50.

If the writers and media personalities hailing Obama as a budget-conscious shopper are going by what magazines such as Marie Claire consider budget, then yes, she is absolutely a recessionista. Yet to others who are truly struggling to pay bills, $400 is no bargain.  

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.