Skip to main content

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.
HIDE CAPTION
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
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
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
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Michelle Obama turns 50 Michelle Obama turns 50
Michelle Obama talks about turning 50
Michelle Obama opens up as she turns 50

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?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT