Clothing Allowance is Not a Perk that Comes with Being a First Lady

In her years in the White House, Michelle Obama has become known as a fashion fan. Mixing high fashion frocks from the likes of Jason Wu, Versace, Carolina Herrera, Gucci, and Givenchy with more accessible wares from J. Crew, she captivated the world, and particularly enchanted the fashion industry.  She landed three Vogue covers during the Obama tenure, after all. Laura Bush did not nab even one; Hillary Clinton graced one in December 1998, reportedly at the insistence of the late Oscar de la Renta. (Vogue is, in case you were not sure, an openly Democratic-identifying publication).

As Vogue noted in connection with Mrs. Obama’s most recent cover, “She didn’t just wear designer clothes to look amazing (although she did); she championed young designers, often designers of color, that represented American innovation and ingenuity.”

Reflecting on Obama’s fashion legacy, Washington Post columnist Robin Givhan stated: “She connected fashion to the broader popular culture. She energized designers, editors and stylists with her fashion-forward wardrobe choices. She made industry insiders stand taller both at home and abroad. She’s been an exemplar of modern, fit and confident middle age. She instilled pride and kinship among countless black women.”

Andre Leon Talley, a fashion editor at Vogue magazine, spoke to the First Lady’s appeal, saying: “Michelle Obama embraced everyone. She embraced black designers, Asian designers, European designers. … She was very democratic in her choice of clothes.” And like her closest European equivalent – Kate Middleton – what she wore during Obama’s presidency has repeatedly and positively affected the chosen brand’s sales.

According to Tracey Reese, whose designs Obama has been photographed in some 20 to 30 times, after Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 – during which Obama wore a Tracey Reese dress – the designer’s phone began ringing off the hook. “We didn’t have inventory — we had made that dress custom.” And so the label went into production. “And people waited,” Reese says. “You know, so many people admire Mrs. Obama and they want to dress like her. We sold quite a few of those dresses.” She estimates the number at over 2,000.

In addition to sales, having a First Lady – one of America’s most visible women – in a design of yours, stands to send brand awareness into the stratosphere. Jason Wu, who dressed Obama for both Inaugural Balls, said, “Global interest for the Jason Wu brand peaked immediately and yielded tremendous recognition and publicity that normally would take years to grow as a brand.”

After Michelle Obama was photographed in one of New York-based brand Cushnie et Ochs’ designs the “Christmas in Washington” television special in December 2012, the brand saw immediate results. “Stores that thought we were too risqué before have booked market appointments after seeing Michelle Obama in our dress,” said the label’s co-founder, Carly Cushnie. “We booked approximately 25 additional appointments for the upcoming fall collection, including Harvey Nichols Hong Kong.”

Prabal Gurung, whose clothes the first lady has worn several times, most notably to the 2011 Governors’ Dinner, echoed this notion, saying, “Before she started wearing my pieces, I was just a new designer. Maybe there were five people paying attention. Then all of a sudden people knew who I was.”

Who is Footing the Bill?

Given all of these garments, most of which are designer-made, comes the oft-popular question of, who is paying? –  a subject that has bedeviled presidents and their wives for centuries, as the position of First Lady does not come with a salary or a clothing allowance.

Per the Associated Press, “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.”

As for Mrs. Obama wardrobe, there are, of course, mixed messages out there – because this is politics, after all. While the financing of the First Lady's wardrobe is something that the Obama White House has been somewhat tight-lipped about, Joanna Rosholm, press secretary to the First Lady, has said: "Mrs. Obama pays for her clothing.” She goes on to state, though, that “for official events of public or historic significance, such as a state visit, the first lady's clothes may be given as a gift by a designer and accepted on behalf of the U.S. government. They are then stored by the National Archives."

The First Lady's office chose not to comment on whether the couture gowns worn by Mrs. Obama for her six other White House state dinners were donated. Nor would it say how many gowns have been donated for the array of other big events for which the First Lady is expected to appear in couture finery, such as the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies, governors' dinners and White House correspondents' dinners.

According to an Associated Press article, “That saves Mrs. Obama considerable money, although the White House refused to say how often the first lady wears donated clothes and the National Archives declined to say how many such items it has in storage.” The AP was also quick to note that wearing donated gowns represents a change in practice from the Bush administration.

In terms of the First Lady’s clothing, the question of who is footing the bill is less important going forward than who is getting the wardrobe together and how – exactly – is it coming together.

As for how Mrs. Obama comes into possession of all of her designer looks, she works with a stylist – or “personal aide.” Meredith Koop, the 35-year old Missouri native (and native of well-known Chicago boutique, Ikram) who has been with Mrs. Obama since day one in the White House, works on Obama's behalf "in arranging for purchases, including considering the best offered price and buying on discount if discounts are available."