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50 and fashionable: How Michelle Obama used style to move a nation

By Harriette Cole
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 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.
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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
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cole: What does the new 50 look like? Two words: Michelle Obama
  • Obama's look says she's poised to take on whatever comes her way, Cole says
  • Cole: Obama has made looking and feeling good hip, even fashionable

Editor's note: Harriette Cole is the president of Harriette Cole Media Inc., former fashion director at Essence magazine and former editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine, where she interviewed and produced several cover stories with Michelle Obama.

(CNN) -- Remember when 50 seemed old?

Ad agencies and TV networks won't freely admit to catering to the AARP set. Fashion designers don't typically pander to the grown-up in us. It's tough to find someone 50+ on the cover of Vogue.

And yet, for many women, 50 is the age when we reach our stride. It's when we begin to love our maturing bodies. When we claim our personal style. When we step into our own power.

Harriette Cole
Harriette Cole

So, what does the new 50 look like? Two words: Michelle Obama.

When you go through the endless scroll of photos of the first lady -- from Inauguration Day, when she first was cloaked in edgy designer Isabel Toledo, to a recent state dinner honoring the British Prime Minister where she was wearing a sleek, off-the-shoulder dress from American design house Marchesa -- you see a fabulous and undeniable evolution.

First lady at 50: Has big day changed?

Obama has the nerve to look younger, fitter, and more comfortable in her skin than she did seven years ago. How she does it is an inspiration to all of us over 50.

If a picture tells anything, it says she is poised to take on whatever comes her way with grace, dignity, humor, warmth and level-headedness. While she has come to be known both for her cut arms and her healthy manifesto to young people, "Let's Move," what remains curious about this 5-foot-11 brown-skinned woman with decidedly black features (who could easily have been considered awkward) is that she has become a fashion icon. A trendsetter, even.

Think about it: How many women in television news and in corporate offices across the country had what the President affectionately called "the right to bare arms" before Michelle Obama started sporting her long, lean limbs? Those sleeveless dresses got women pumping iron, too, urging them on with the dream that they, too, could look as good as she one day.

Vanity has surely driven people to better health!

Michelle O -- much like her predecessor Jackie O -- has taken the global stage by storm, choosing to define a style for herself that defies tradition. The cut arms? Check. The return of the bangs? Check. The popularizing of affordable American fashion? Check.

10 reasons to welcome turning 50

And why not? All eyes were on Michelle Obama from the moment she walked into the White House. What would the first black first lady do to make her mark? How would she present herself? What would be her defining moments?

First lady Michelle Obama celebrates her 50th birthday on Friday, January 17. Click through the gallery to see photos from her life. First lady Michelle Obama celebrates her 50th birthday on Friday, January 17. Click through the gallery to see photos from her life.
Michelle Obama turns 50
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Michelle Obama turns 50 Michelle Obama turns 50
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Michelle Obama has introduced the country and beyond to a woman who is unafraid to be herself, who embraces her uniqueness, and who strategically says what she thinks.

Saying it through her attire was a clever way to open many doors. She sold out a Donna Ricco dress from White House/Black Market when she made an early appearance on "The View," showing you don't have to break the bank to look good. She dazzled viewers in British-Nigerian designer Duro Olowu's crazy mixed-up patterns while exercising with children on "Sesame Street." When she took off a shiny black leather jacket to do 25 pushups (three more than Ellen DeGeneres on her own show), folks stopped checking so much for who she was wearing and instead took a good look at what she was saying.

Had Michelle Obama come out on the national stage wearing a frown, pounding her fists, saying we have to get healthy and move our bodies or we are going to die, it's unlikely that her cause would have been met with as much success. Instead, she has made looking and feeling good hip, even fashionable.

For her, 50 isn't about Spanx or any other fat-cloaking accessory. When you are at your fighting weight and probably look amazing in a two-piece, why would you?

For this first lady—whose agenda secretly looks more like that of Eleanor Roosevelt, who stood up for women and intelligence in the face of hostility and scorn—engaging in the art of adornment to expand the lens of how people look at each other and their world has been nothing short of brilliant.

In 2008, America took a bet on a president and first lady who didn't remotely resemble their predecessors. Thank goodness, Michelle Obama didn't choose a predictable, cookie-cutter approach once she moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

She took a fashion road less traveled, walking away from heavyweights like Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera and choosing to give some newbies and/or smaller houses a chance. She gave Jason Wu a meteoric jump-start with her first inaugural gown, broadened black female designer Tracy Reese's reach with a sunny People magazine cover and has championed a whole host of other creators—Maria Pinto, Narciso Rodriguez, Thakoon, Tracy Feith, Rachel Roy—many who got the kind of shine they hadn't dared dream about before her reign.

Why does this matter? Michelle Obama has artfully navigated her time in office to elevate the collective consciousness about diversity, health and fitness. She's faced the wrath of critics, who have picked on her for everything from her passion to get the nation's youth into exercise to her amazing posterior to the sneakers she wore while volunteering at a food bank.

Still, at 50, she stands poised (often in Jimmy Choos) as a perfect example of what being grown and vital looks like.

Who wouldn't want to look as good as Michelle Obama when crossing the halfway mark of life? To the haters out there, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself if you'd stand up in her shoes?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Harriette Cole.

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