Though the second inauguration of Barack Obama is unlikely to recapture the excitement of his first — 1.8 million attended four years ago, but half as many are expected this time — one aspect of the inaugural festivities may be more hotly anticipated this time around. For all the fascination surrounding 2008's bridal-inspired Jason Wu gown, the next four years saw Michelle Obama's transformation from image-challenged campaign spouse to international style icon. And if the second inaugural ball gowns of her predecessors are any indication, that could result in a riskier look on Monday.
While four years in the White House seem to make presidents age twice as fast, the maturation of First Ladies' style tends to be positive — in the eyes of the press, at least.
Hillary Clinton's first gown inspired a Chicago Tribune piece entitled “Hillary’s Fashion Crimes” in 1993, but four years later her second inaugural wardrobe drew applause. Clinton landed on the cover of Vogue in her husband’s second term. Likewise, though Laura Bush's first inaugural wardrobe drew careful groans ("a little more festive than you might expect," "not a dress that I might have imagined"), her second inaugural wardrobe drew raves. “After four years in the White House, Mrs. Bush's style has gone from serviceable to dynamic,” Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote. “The dress was also undeniable evidence her aesthetic sensibility has become more sophisticated, more refined and unabashedly rich.” A USA Today article pinpointed Bush's panned fashion debut as the beginning of her "style evolution": “[N]ot long after that stumble, the first lady turned up in the June 2001 issue of Vogue in Oscar de la Renta. Since then, her look has evolved as her collaboration with de la Renta has grown."
“If you look back at many First Ladies’ second inaugural gowns they make more of a statement about the individual rather than the position and the moment,” says Kate Betts, former editor of Harper’s Bazaar and author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style. (To her point, in 2005 the Washington Post wrote of Laura Bush’s second inaugural wardrobe, “In making her choices, de la Renta says, Mrs. Bush focused on her own sense of style and not on how a particular color or silhouette might look on television, from a distance or in the pages of history.”)
Likewise, with a Vogue cover under her (Alaïa) belt, favorability ratings higher than her husband’s, and her years as a source of suspicion for voters long behind her, Mrs. Obama would be well poised to make a more personal statement this time around. Mikki Taylor, author of Commander in Chic: Every Woman's Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady believes her style has already changed: “Mrs. Obama's style has definitely evolved over the last four years. While she still works her ‘classic with a twist’ style ever so well, she's more fearless in that she mixes patterns, texture, color and eye-catching accessories at every turn now,” she explains.
But because only first inaugural gowns traditionally appear in the Smithsonian’s First Ladies' Modern Gown Gallery, second gowns rarely inspire the remembrance of the first — even though a number of second gowns have been more fashion-forward and universally praised.
For MObama watchers, speculating about what she will wear for her second inauguration has joined the ranks of “Who Shot J.R.?” in pop culture mysteries. In a recent study of the first lady's style evolution, the New York Times' Cathy Horyn points out that, unlike previous First Ladies, Obama has resisted hitching her wagon to one favored designer, wearing as many as 50 different labels in a single year. Deducing who will win this year’s fashion designer equivalent of a lottery ticket is, consequently, nearly impossible — not that onlookers and fashion insiders aren't trying. The New York Times profile also calculates that Obama’s appearance in a label is worth nearly $14 million dollars to a brand.
But perhaps the most important inaugural gown clue that Horyn's article provides comes in the form of an anonymous quote from a designer who has dressed her: "She’s more confident now."
Will that confidence manifest itself on inauguration night? “I don't know why, but I feel like she will make a statement in this way at the inaugural this time around,” Betts continues, offering perhaps the most surprising theory of all: "For the inaugural we may see her repeat a gown she's worn before." Obama did, after all, repeat a Michael Kors dress on election night. But a style icon repeating a gown on the most heavily photographed night of her year? Now that really would require confidence.