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Lessons in style from Michelle Obama

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
January 22, 2013 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
First lady Michelle Obama, who turns 50 on Friday, January 17, catches the American public's attention whenever she sports a new look. First lady Michelle Obama, who turns 50 on Friday, January 17, catches the American public's attention whenever she sports a new look.
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
Michelle Obama's evolving style
  • Michelle Obama embodies the importance of staying true to a style that fits your life and body
  • "She shows that you can have fun getting dressed up and still be taken seriously," editor says
  • Like the first lady, anyone can repeat outfits by mixing and matching or accessorizing
  • Her support of designers from diverse backgrounds reflects America's cultural mixture

(CNN) -- It's tempting to dismiss Michelle Obama's wardrobe as a topic so frivolous that it shifts the public gaze from its rightful focus on the first lady's efforts to reduce childhood obesity or put healthy eating on the national agenda.

But if there's one thing we can learn from her panache for mixing patterns or flair for pairing Talbot dresses and designer shades, it's that fashion doesn't have to be frivolous.

"She's someone who has proven that you can care about looking great, and take risks in that regard, and also be an incredibly well-spoken, intelligent person who takes action and gets behind issues," said Leah Chernikoff, managing editor of style blog

As she stands on the brink of another four years as first lady, her leadership and values should get more attention than the ease with which she transitions from slacks and cardigans to cutting-edge designer gowns. But to minimize the influence of her sartorial choices deprives the rest of us of an opportunity to learn from them, fashion consultants say.

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In an image-conscious society, Michelle Obama embodies the importance of honing a signature style and remaining true to it, said Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large of Essence Magazine and author of "Commander-in-Chic: Every Woman's Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady." Developing a personal style that fits our lives and our bodies frees us from worrying about what to wear and lets us focus on what really matters.

"She teaches us that to be a commander-in-chic of your life you don't have to spend a lot of money. It's not about becoming someone else; it's about becoming your best self."

As a style icon, she has the ability to inspire the public in an accessible way that one-wear red carpet fashion doesn't come close to approximating.

"When you look at red carpet you're stargazing, but when you're looking at Mrs. Obama you're taking notes," Taylor said. "We don't have time to stress getting dressed any more than the first lady does so I think it's really important to have wardrobe that you can count on that works for you."

Her outfits emphasize fashion and function, reflecting her broader platform of healthy and active living, said decorative arts historian Carmela Spinelli, chair of the Savannah College of Art and Design's fashion department. When she bares her arms for a gym class with schoolchildren, she makes headlines on the politics page and the style section, inspiring Americans to hit the floor for push-ups and reconsider sheaths under cardigans.

"It's not just great for the fashion industry, but also great for helping us get out and move by showing that the body is just as important as the moment in fashion," Spinelli said.

Her support for emerging designers of diverse backgrounds and influences has bolstered the fashion industry's bottom line while reflecting the country's diverse cultural landscape, Spinelli said.

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"When I think about Michelle Obama and how she has embraced young designers and how she is very comfortable with color and texture, it's a brilliant metaphor for the diversity of 21st century America," she said.

What Michelle Obama wears also matters because it's history, said Nicole Phelps, executive editor of

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"Fifty years from now, or 100 years from now, people will understand this era through pictures of her, the same way that Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hats represent the 1960s for us now," she said.

As rarefied as her address at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is, Michelle Obama's basic look is not difficult to obtain, say fashion insiders. They offered some tips to cultivate a signature style not unlike the first lady's.

Develop a personal style that accentuates the positive

Owning your personal style makes shopping easier because you can do so without feeling beholden to trends. Sticking to what flatters you also helps you dress with confidence each morning without feeling the need to seek approval from others.

"Every woman in America knows that FLOTUS has great arms; that's because she knows it and she shows them off in sleeveless dresses," said Phelps of

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Michelle Obama is tall and statuesque but she's not the typical model size. Yet she looks great in whatever she wears because she has figured out what works for her body and lifestyle and stays true to her personal style, said celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch.

"She takes chances and tries different things, but she always stays true to herself in trying a new designer or a new color," he said.

Be fabulous and frugal by mixing high and low fashion

Even if you can't afford designer clothes, Obama's fast-fashion skirts, sheaths and dresses accessorized with a belt or cardigan show how you don't have to spend lots of money to look good.

It also goes back to staying true to a style that fits her body and lifestyle, whether she's stepping out of Air Force One in a Target dress or making a grand entrance in a floor-length gown at a White House state dinner.

"She looks equally well-dressed whether she's in Target or a Talbot sheath or Michael Kors," said Taylor. "I don't know any other first lady you could see on TV one day and buy (what she wore) in a store the next."

Part of what makes Michelle Obama so relatable is that she wears designer clothes but mixes them with pieces from J. Crew and other mall outlets, often in the same outfit, said Chernikoff of

"That's an easy takeaway for all of us -- buy the Calvin Klein skirt and wear it with a Gap sweater," she said.

Build a timeless wardrobe of signature pieces so you can shop your closet

The first lady is known for working the same dress, skirt or cardigan on multiple occasions by mixing and matching pieces, Taylor said. She achieves this by building a bankable wardrobe of flared pants, pencil skirts and cardigans that work for her in a pinch, freeing her from the need to follow trends.

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"Being comfortable in your own skin is not about following trends but setting them," Taylor said. "A woman who knows how to dress well shows wisdom and restraint and doesn't give into the fashion insecurity of thinking you need a new dress for each season."

True, much of Michelle Obama's wardrobe consists of expensive, quality designer clothing. But spending more on items made to last can cost less over time and reinforce the idea of developing a sense of style and staying true to it, said Spinelli of Savannah College of Art and Design.

"The idea of disposable fashion is costing us more than we know, so it's not a bad thing to teach people to buy something good and keep it for a while instead of throwing it out."

Don't be afraid of colors and prints

Obama has embraced mixed patterns, textures and vivid colors, but her confident fashion sense allows her to mix it up with authority.

By wearing watercolor sheaths under embellished cardigans to talk to schoolchildren about healthy eating, or textured floral dresses to meet heads of state, she shows that it's not frivolous to express yourself through fashion while doing the serious work of the first lady of the United States

"She shows us that you can have fun getting dressed up and still be taken seriously and move issues forward," Chernikoff said.

Are you anxious to see what the first lady wears to the inauguration events this weekend? Share your take on her style choices in the comments section below.

Follow Emanuella Grinberg on Twitter

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