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Michelle Obama: a fashion icon with staying power

When Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Michelle Obama met last month for a private dinner in Washington, the world's press painted the occasion as a fashion face-off, placing bets on which First Lady would be the fairest in the land (or, at least, Georgetown).

But for Robin Givhan, who covers style for the Washington Post, the preoccupation with a frock fight was off the mark.

"All the hyperbole suggests the women might [have]abruptly snatch[ed]off each other's brooches, collars and floppy bows in a kind of I Love Lucy-style, wardrobe-demolishing brawl," the Pulitzer-Prize-winning fashion writer wrote in one of her columns. "The verbiage doesn't acknowledge fashion as a discrete tool that can amplify and clarify one's personality. Instead, it impolitely treats fashion like the sum total of one's character. It's worth fighting about, as it were, because it's all they have."

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This casting of fashion as a tool for measuring society's temperature at a given time and place peppered much of a lecture that Givhan delivered in Toronto recently.

(She was also slated to give another talk at the University of Toronto's Hart House on Friday night.)

Givhan's main focus during her earlier visit was Obama, the subject of her just-released "photographic journal" about the First Lady's first year as a White House glamour puss. Published by the Post, it is called, simply, Michelle.

In the book, the 46-year-old reporter makes a compelling argument for Obama as a fashion icon with staying power, describing her decision to go sleeveless for an official photograph, for instance, as a sign that she knows how to use fashion to make a statement. Her own statement. About who she is as a strong and independent woman serving as a mentor to other women.

"I think she's a role model for a lot of women in many different ways," Givhan said during a pre-talk interview in her Toronto hotel room.

"She is someone who doesn't think that fashion, intelligence and being authoritative … are in conflict with each other. They are all aspects of the same person."

Clothes, in other words, can make the woman as much as they make the man. "For me, fashion is all about public presentation," Givhan said. "When defined that way, it allows me to take a person within a historical moment and look at what they are wearing as not just a statement about them, but about what it says about us as a culture."

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So what did that imagined fashion fracas between Obama and Bruni-Sarkozy reveal? Givhan says that it all boiled down to the age-old debate about fashion and its role in power.

"The negative commentaries - indeed the disagreements - only underscore how women are liberating themselves from fashion's dictates and thus society's rules," she concluded.

"The only real fashion ruckus these women are creating is one based on individuality and independence. And that is a dust-up worth celebrating."

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