Michelle Obama: Style Savior?

Like many other women, I have followed Michelle Obama’s fashion choices with great interest. When the First Lady gets it right, as she so often does, her look is spectacular. And when she gets it wrong, she goes beyond a mere Glamour “don’t” and ventures into “don’t even think about it, ever” territory. But fashion is all about risk, and risk includes the possibility of failure. When Mrs. Obama goofs—the prizefighter belts cinched over dainty blouses—however, she more than offsets her flubs by looking at other times positively incandescent, as she did at the recent State Dinner.

So when the Daily Beast promised a new gallery of “Michelle Obama’s best photographs yet” I of course avidly started clicking away. The photos were all right, but the accompanying text by Stanley Crouch, whom I think of as a jazz critic, but who evidently is also something of a connoisseur of First-Lady style, was stunning in its own right. His essay, a review of two picture books about Mrs. Obama, begins:

“In our period of manic and hollow decadence loudly and consistently dehumanizing a public convinced that flimsy trends constitute the up-to-date truth, the always contemporary power of fine art is not diminished. This is most obvious when expensive forms of trash are forced to backflip until they obviate their standard uses. John Ford did this with Westerns, Fred Astaire with musicals, and our best jazz musicians with some of the worst popular songs. Two recent books of photographs have captured the invincible life of human feeling in high places and the indestructible glare of the heart preserved in the still gestures of ritualized dance.”

Having read these three sentences several times, I can follow them, maybe even diagram them, but as to understanding what they mean, well your guess is as good as mine. And what the last sentence has to do with the first two, which at least relate to each other inductively, may well remain a mystery to both of us. I get that “human feeling” has an “invincible life,” but why limit that life to “in high places”? Is Crouch contending that only the privileged few who dwell in “high places” remain in possession of “human feeling” while the rest of us make do in a place “consistently dehumanizing [the] public”? As to the “indestructible glare of the heart,” one asks why Crouch evokes the Christian devotion of the Sacred Heart, bloodied and flaming, before noting that he gets his Keats on in the paragraph’s final clump of words describing where the artorial organ can be found “preserved in the still gestures of ritualized dance.” Oh be still my unravished bride of quietude! I have long been of the mind that writers of prose stand to learn a lot from poets, but Crouch has deeply shaken my confidence in that conviction.

The remainder of Crouch’s article is equally impenetrable (that pesky bride again!); in his effort to beatify Michelle Obama, Crouch lets loose with language that a first-year creative writing student experimenting with religious symbolism would be ashamed to use. According to Crouch, the two books of First Lady photos are instead iconographies which depict, among many other virtues, “the perpetual feeling of vitality found in the image of the first lady.” Vitality, he goes on to observe, that “is always paced by the peculiar sorrow of the extremely sensitive in positions of great power and ceaseless attention.” He breathlessly concludes, “Lady Obama actually seems to be as she appears, the common woman made into a queen by her soulfulness and the love of the people.” And, yes, you read that right, Crouch calls Michelle “Lady Obama,” as in Our Lady of Perpetual Vitality.

Please do not think that I am attacking Crouch unfairly. He himself makes the sanctification of Mrs. Obama explicit later on in the essay, when writing I suppose about the occasional aloofness some of her portraits belie: “The aura of a spiritual rapier always remains in place. It is used to silently defend Lady Obama against all of those things that anyone bearing the cross of being considered an icon must hold as far at bay as possible.”

Evidently Crouch’s post crossed in the mail with Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s December 6 editorial, which begins, “Some parishioners in the Church of Obama discovered last week that their spiritual leader is a false prophet,” goes on to talk about falling poll numbers, and concludes, “This is what happens when true believers mistake a mortal for a messiah.” I suppose, however, that Stanley Crouch would point out that he’s talking about the other Obama, Saint Michelle, and not the false prophet who is her husband.

I end as I began, Michelle Obama is a great-looking First Lady doing marvelous things for working women who want to look stylish: she’s bringing back dresses; she’s wearing adorable flats; she’s got great accessories (except the ugly belts). And I’d like to think she has more than fashion sense, that she has the common sense to be appalled by Stanley Crouch.

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