During her time as the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama‘s wardrobe has been more than just a series of pretty dresses, functioning instead as a way to relate to everyone from fellow nations to the American public. Sleeveless sheaths, classic cardigans, and stunning gowns made her a fashion favorite. But she also chose young, up-and-coming American designers of color like Tracy Reese as well as designers from relevant countries for events. Early on, she emerged as a the rare First Lady to routinely wear affordable off-the-rack choices from everyday retailers like J. Crew and Asos with pride.
What the First Lady wears really does matter, so with that in mind, see 35 of the most influential looks she’s sported during the past eight years below.
Write to Cady Lang at email@example.com.
June 3, 2008
What: Maria Pinto dress, pearls, Alaïa belt
Why it’s influential: Obama chose a brightly colored sleeveless sheath dress from fellow Chicago native Maria Pinto during a rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, after her husband won the Democratic nomination. Her accessories spoke volumes about the future First Lady — while pearls are a standby, her studded Alaïa belt gave the dress a modern edge. The sleeveless sheath was just the first of many that would showcase the first lady’s famously toned arms.
August 25, 2008
October 27, 2008
What: J. Crew skirt, blouse, and sweater
Why it’s influential: During an appearance on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Obama told Leno and the viewers at home that everything she was wearing was from J. Crew, a popular (and affordable) ready-to-wear retailer. “Ladies, we know J. Crew,” she said. “You can get some good stuff online!”
November 4, 2008
What: Narciso Rodriguez dress and cardigan
Why it’s influential: On the night that Barack Obama won his first presidential election, the family showed a united front by dressing in matching tones of red and black. It’s also worth noting that the dress designer Narciso Rodriguez is the son of Cuban immigrants; with this choice, Obama began what would become a trademark of her style: supporting American designers of color.
January 20, 2009
What: Isabel Toledo dress and coat, Nina Ricci cardigan, J. Crew leather gloves, Jimmy Choo heels
Why it’s influential: Obama’s decision to wear a light green look by Isabel Toledo for the Inauguration marked yet example that set her apart from first ladies of years past. Both the color and designer were unexpected but welcome; wearing Toledo was an intriguing move for Obama, who resisted relying exclusively on Oscar de la Renta, a favorite of former first ladies.
January 20, 2009
What: Jason Wu gown
Why it’s influential: Obama chose to wear Jason Wu, a Taiwanese-born Canadian and first generation American for one of her first public events as the First Lady, the Inaugural Ball. The designer shot to mainstream success after the First Lady selected his dress for the ball.
What: Michael Kors dress and a double strand of pearls
Why it’s influential: Obama and her famously defined arms were the talk of the nation once her official White House portrait was released, showing the First Lady in a sleeveless black Michael Kors dress. There were some who called it scandalous and others who argued it was unapologetically strong.
April 1, 2009
What: J. Crew cardigan, pencil skirt
Why it’s influential: Hours after Obama was spotted in a bejeweled J. Crew cardigan during the Obamas’ first U.K. visit in a presidential capacity, the cardigan sold out online, a testament to the First Lady’s impact on fashion.
April 1, 2009
What: Alaïa cardigan, Isabel Toledo dress, double strand of pearls
Why it’s influential: When Obama showed up to Buckingham Palace in her signature cardigan, she faced criticism (perhaps most significantly from Oscar de la Renta, a favorite of first ladies like Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush) for the casual feel of the look. However, this was a prime example of Obama’s easy elegance in classic American sportswear.
April 28, 2009
What: Sophie Theallet shirtdress
Why it’s influential: While the shirtdress at the time may not have seemed groundbreaking, the designer, Sophie Theallet, has been a go-to choice for the First Lady. Years later when Donald Trump was elected, Theallet made headlines by declaring that she would not dress Melania Trump, urging her fellow designers to do the same.
April 29, 2009
What: Cardigan sweater, shirt, jeans, and Lanvin sneakers
Why it’s influential: Although Obama had garnered plenty of praise for wearing clothes from retailers like Talbots and White Market Black Market and for championing easy-to-wear sportswear items like denim and cardigan sweaters, her choice to wear a pair of $540 Lanvin sneakers while volunteering at a food bank divided some critics.
August 16, 2009
What: Short-sleeved button down, shirt, shorts
Why it’s influential: Despite the fact that she was on a summer vacation, Obama faced criticism for getting off Air Force One during a family trip to the Grand Canyon from people who felt it was inappropriate. Years later in 2013, Obama said she regretted wearing them, telling 106 & Park hosts “that created a huge stink because people were like, ‘She’s wearing shorts getting off Air Force One,” she said. “And I thought, ‘We’re on vacation. It’s hot.”
November 24, 2009
What: Naeem Khan gown
Why it’s influential: For her first official state dinner as First Lady with India’s prime minister and his wife, Obama chose a gown by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan.
January 19, 2011
What: Alexander McQueen gown
Why it’s influential: This gorgeous Alexander McQueen dress might have been the most controversial of Obama’s formalwear; while many of First Lady’s fashion choices have been praised for being politically diplomatic, her choice to wear a British designer to a state dinner upset American designers to the point that the Council of Fashion Designers of America issued a statement expressing its disappointment with the choice.
May 24, 2011
What: Tom Ford gown and opera-length gloves
Why it’s influential: For this formal event, Obama selected a gown by Tom Ford, an American designer whose headquarters are in London.
October 13, 2011
What: Doo-Ri Chung gown
Why it’s influential: Obama chose a one-shouldered jewel-toned gown by Korean-American designer Doo-Ri Chung for a state dinner with South Korea.
March 14, 2012
What: Marchesa gown and Tom Binns necklaces
Why it’s influential: While pearls have long been a staple for first ladies, Obama’s layered take on it for a state dinner with British Prime Minister David Cameron was praised as a decidedly fresh and fun way to style the Marchesa gown by English designers Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig.
August 15, 2012
What: ASOS dress
Why it’s influential: The First Lady campaigned for Obama’s re-election in a cheery red dress from popular online retailer ASOS that anyone could snap up for less than $100; it was also favored by Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin.
September 4, 2012
What: Tracy Reese dress, J. Crew pumps
Why it’s influential: Obama chose to wear the black designer Reese’s creation on the first day of the Democratic National Committee. Twitter reportedly exploded with questions about who made the dress. Her dress, like the speech she gave in it, got rave reviews.
October 16, 2012
What: Michael Kors dress and matching jacket
Why it’s influential: Obama wore a suit in the same bright pink shade as Ann Romney’s sheath dress for one of the presidential debates. The possible coincidence made headlines, and prompted people to wonder if the color was a nod to Breast Cancer awareness.
November 6, 2012
January 21, 2013
What: Thom Browne coat, Reed Krakoff boots and J. Crew belt
Why it’s influential: For the second presidential inauguration, Obama went with an edgier and more sartorially adventurous look, picking fashion favorite Thom Browne for her outwear. However, she coupled the standout coat with an embellished belt from J. Crew, eschewing an all-designer look for a high-low combination that could appeal to a wide range of audiences.
January 21, 2013
February 12, 2013
August 28, 2013
What: Tracy Reese dress
Why it’s influential: Obama again turned to favorite, black designer Reese at this event honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
March 28, 2015
What: Zac Posen dress, Jimmy Choo heels
Why it’s influential: Obama selected a fun and flattering look for BET’s Black Girls Rock! special; the off-the-shoulder style and more casual length fit for the show’s youthful audience, giving viewers a rare glimpse of the First Lady outside of a White House capacity.
April 28, 2015
What: Tadashi Shoji gown
Why it’s influential: Obama chose a bold purple gown by designer Tadashi Shoji, a Japanese designer based in the U.S., for a state dinner with Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe.
September 25, 2015
What: Vera Wang gown
Why it’s influential: After the backlash over her wearing Alexander McQueen in 2011 to the last state dinner with China, Obama chose an elegant gown with a mermaid silhouette and off-the-shoulder detailing by Chinese-American designer Vera Wang to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping.
July 25, 2016
What: Christian Siriano dress
Why it’s influential: To deliver her powerful, emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama wore a simple cobalt blue dress from Project Runway alumnus Christian Siriano, who’s made headlines in the past year for providing high fashion to women of all shapes and sizes.
August 2, 2016
What: Brandon Maxwell gown
Why it’s influential: Obama wore this design by Maxwell, a former stylist for Lady Gaga and newly minted fashion designer who’s been vocal about LGBTQ rights, for a state dinner with Singapore.
October 18, 2016
What: Atelier Versace gown
Why it’s influential: For her last state dinner as the First Lady, Obama went with a shimmering gown by Atelier Versace. The rose gold chain mail style gown was a fashion insider’s dream and a nod to the guests of honor, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and his wife. Many pointed to this gown as the apex of Michelle’s style evolution as the First Lady.
November 7, 2016
What: Aubergine dress and matching coat
Why it’s influential: Instead of her signature bolder colors, Obama opted for a demure dark purple ensemble while hitting the campaign trail to support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton who wore the brighter pantsuit; both of their wardrobe choices reflected their roles on the campaign.
December 4, 2016
What: Gucci gown
Why it’s influential: While the fashion set was overjoyed to see Michelle in a custom gown by Gucci, others were quick to point out that this was the first time that Michelle had worn a non-American designer to the Kennedy Center Honors, coinciding with the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.