Kamala Harris’ Style Owes A Lot To Michelle Obama’s First Lady Looks

The soft power style of her FLOTUS years is the perfect inspiration for a new era in Washington politics.

Michelle Obama

by Laura Antonia Jordan |
Updated on

One way 2021 has beaten 2020: Michelle Obama is back at the Capitol. Or at least she was, for this week's 46th presidential inauguration ceremony. Attending the event in head-to-toe plum, Obama reminded us what we've all been missing for the past four years, namely inclusive, inspirational, interesting fashion that uplifts and makes a literal statement for all the right reasons. The designer? Sergio Hudson, an up-and-coming young Black designer.

Michelle Obama in Sergio Hudson
Michelle Obama in Sergio Hudson ©Getty

It was certainly a day to remember for Hudson, new vice president Kamala Harris also wore the indie labelfor the occasion (plus a coat by Christopher John Rogers). The parallels between the women didn't stop there, both women also opted for symbolic purple on the day. Could it be that Harris is taking notes from Obama's excellent White House wardrobe? Possibly - and if she is, it's a smart strategy.

When they go low, we go high’. It was back in 2016 that then First Lady Michelle Obama delivered these words, in a speech at the Democratic National Convention. The world has changed beyond recognition since then (don’t we know it) but Obama’s words – and what she represented – feel more relevant now than ever. It's a hopeful sign that Joe Biden's speech on Wednesday urged a return to bipartisan politics.

Michelle Obama in Christian Siriano
Michelle Obama in Christian Siriano ©Getty

Obama’s FLOTUS style also continues to endure. Of course, she was always so much more than a glossy clothes horse or, for that matter, someone’s wife but Obama had an innate understanding of the power of clothes. Take the outfit she wore for this speech: a cobalt blue silk crepe dress by Christian Siriano. It’s wasn’t just that the dress was in the Democratic team colours, nor that the designer is renowned for his inclusive approach to design (Siriano has always welcomed women of all shapes, sizes and ages to wear his pieces) but that the look was pure Michelle: like everything she wore, it said ‘I know who I am’.

Michelle Obama at the 2009 Presidential inauguration parade
Michelle Obama at the 2009 Presidential inauguration parade ©Getty

Certainly Obama nailed a signature look during her White House days (Harris is already doing the same; trousers suits, Converse and pearls - which have taken on a life of their own- are her calling cards). Nipped in waists, knee-length skirts, cropped cardigans and kitten-heeled courts were go-tos. Her triumph was to craft a modern style that was equal parts effortless and elegant. Her propensity for sleeveless styles – like the Michael Kors sheath she wore for her first official portrait – caused some (unwarranted, outdated) backlash at the time. When you think of what was to come next, one might retort: I Really Don’t Care. Do U? Ahem.

Like the very best diplomatic dressers, Obama also knew that the ability to choose a relevant designer could speak volumes – she had fun with fashion, but never saw it simply as lightweight frivolity. So, yes, she was a champion of American brands, but she also supported local talent when abroad (see the Christopher Kane and Roksanda dresses she wore for visits to the UK).

Michelle Obama in Jason Wu
Michelle Obama in Jason Wu ©Getty

Obama had a platform and she was damn well going to use it for the better, for instance, to shine a light on new and emerging designers; Taiwanese-American designer Jason Wu (a choice – like Cuban-American Isabel Toledo or Thai-American Thakoon Panichgul, that made a powerful statement about immigrants’ contribution to American culture) was only two years into his namesake label when Obama wore his white gown for her first inaugural ball in 2009. Talk about a moment.

Also part of Obama’s diplomatic mission was her support of accessibly-priced brands. She was a huge J Crew fan, and also wore Converse on several occasions. This imbued her wardrobe with a warmth, an easily-translatable, desirable ordinariness in the most extraordinary of circumstances. To mix haute couture with high-street finds feels particularly modern now. And, like Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, she’s always been a repeat-wear fan too (as is new FLOTUS Dr Jill Biden, who has worn an emerald Gabriela Hearst dress to three different events so far). The Narisco Rodriguez dress – fit and flare, classic Mobama – she wore for a trip to Buenos Aires in 2016 got an outing again when she welcomed Melania Trump to the White House for tea later that year; an Azzedine Alaïa dress worn to a church service in 2013 was recycled from a TV appearance in 2009.

Michelle Obama in Atelier Versace
Michelle Obama in Atelier Versace ©Getty

All of this is not to say that Obama didn’t know how to turn up the glamour to the max as well. Wow, did she know her way around a gown. Tom Ford, Marchesa, Gucci, Givenchy – she could deliver show-stopping, mic-dropping moments on a par with her close friend Beyoncé. One look was particularly glorious: the rose gold Atelier Versace gown she wore for her final state dinner in 2016. Yes she looked incredible, and in an industry that has struggled with diversity and visibility, it felt powerful and timely to see a Black woman owning it in couture. And again the quietly formidable messages were there. This dress was chainmail. Following a campaign dogged by ‘nasty woman’ slurs, it felt like an empowered call to arms.

Obama’s fashion legacy matters now more than ever, because it, like her, contains multitudes. Just as her wardrobe wasn’t just high-end or high-street, glamorous or grounded, she too was so much bigger than being just one thing. She is a reminder that as women, we can be complex while still retaining our solid core of selfhood. Obama knows herself, she is unafraid to be herself, and it’s why she’ll always be a First Lady to look up to.


Fashback: Michelle Obama

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Here with the Bidens on election night in 2008, Michelle wore one of her favourite brands: Narcisco Rodriguez.

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For her official First Lady portrait in 2009 wearing Michael Kors. This sleeveless silhouette became a signature look for Michelle.

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For the historic Presidential inauguration in 2009 Michelle wore a dress and coat by Isabel Toledo - and gloves from J Crew.

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The belle of the ball. Michelle opted for a white gown by Jason Wu for the Inauguration ball in 2009.

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We love a glove moment. Michelle wears full Tom Ford to the Buckingham Palace State Banquet in 2011.

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Co-ordination goals! Rewearing Azzedine Alaia for a church service in 2013.

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Hitting the courts in this cardigan and trousers look, Michelle proves she can truly do anything and still look elegant.

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For her second Inauguration Ball, in 2013, Michelle again turned to Jason Wu.

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Keeping it chic and buttoned up at the 2013 inauguration, Michelle wore Thom Browne.

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Wearing Zac Posen at the Black Girls Rock! Show in 2015.

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Proving that she is the queen of diplomatic dressing, Michelle wore British designer Christopher Kane for a visit to 10 Downing Street in 2015.

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Nothing scary about Michelle's dressed down style! For Halloween 2015, she wears Proenza Schouler and Converse.

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Mrs Obama opts for a punchy floral print summer dress here for the Harvest White House Kitchen Garden in 2015.

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Pow! A bright colour block moment, wearing aqua Carolina Herrera with the Pope in 2015.

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Arriving in Buenos Aires on Air Force One in 2016, Michelle wears a Narciso Rodriguez midi sleeve dress. She rewore this dress later that year for tea with Melania Trump.

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A total mic-drop moment. Truly defining what it means to "glow", Michelle wears Atelier Versace to the Final State Dinner in 2016.

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Michelle attends the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016 wearing custom Gucci

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Never one to shy away from colour, Michelle glows in this shade of yellow at the State of the Union in 2016

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Michelle opted for her favourite, Narcisco Rodriguez, for her final FLOTUS speech in 2017.

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For her iconic "When They Go Low, We Go High" speech in 2016, Michelle wears a cobalt blue dress by Christian Siriano - a designer renowned for his democratic approach to design.

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It was Narcisco Rodriguez (again!) for Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017. Michelle went 'high' always.

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