The sneaky political message in Michelle Obama's portrait dress

Barack and Michelle Obama revealed their presidential portraits for the Smithsonian’s  National Portrait Gallery on Feb. 12, and while much of the focus was of course on the former president’s — a colorful portrayal of Obama in the foreground of a floral motif by Kehinde Wiley — a handful of covert messages are hidden in the former first lady’s portrait.

Artist Amy Sherald created Michelle Obama’s portrait, in which she wears a custom geometric halter dress designed by Michelle Smith, the creative director at Milly. At first glance, the dress distinguishes Obama by its pattern and cut: It’s a sleeveless print dress with pockets, unlike anything any of her FLOTUS predecessors wore, and evokes the same sense of approachability and sensibility that Obama communicated during her tenure.

“It was an absolute honor to work on Mrs. Obama’s dress for her official presidential portrait. I dressed Mrs.Obama on several occasions while she was in office, and am so grateful to create something that she will forever be remembered in by future generations,” Smith says through a spokesperson to Yahoo Lifestyle. “The modern silhouette of the dress perfectly reflects her forward-thinking sensibility, and I’m thrilled that I get to be a little part of what was such a ground-breaking an positive presidency.”

But it’s Obama’s choice of Milly as a designer that may send the most direct political statement, because Smith is known for her outspoken activism. Last September, she debuted T-shirts commemorating 100 years of Planned Parenthood, for which 100 percent of the proceeds were to benefit the nonprofit women’s health care organization.

At the time, the designer told Yahoo Lifestyle that Trump’s election was a “severe wakeup call to do something,” which inspired her to hand out “Steinem AF” T-shirts at her February 2017 runway show, referencing feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem. “We are aligned with female empowerment, helping others, LGBTQ rights, and we want everybody to know it. We’re not hiding it,” Smith said of Milly. “Now more than ever, if we feel threatened, it’s a time to speak up.”

According to a story in the Washington Post, Smith said that Obama’s dress “is based on one that was in her spring 2017 Milly collection. That season Smith was inspired by a ‘desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality,’ she says. One of the recurring elements in the collection were various forms of lacing and ties; the details were meant to suggest a ‘feeling of being held back … that we’re not quite there yet.’ The finish line is still off in the distance.”

It’s not the first time Michelle Obama has worn something from Smith. In her final White House photographs just before President Trump’s inauguration, she wore a black-and-white vertically striped Milly button-up on the staircase with her family’s dogs, Bo and Sunny, warm as ever. 

The Obamas themselves may have left the White House, but their choices — both sartorially and otherwise — will continue to communicate their legacy.

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