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Phenomenal Woman

Michelle Obama’s Embodied Rhetoric and the Cultural Work of Fashion Biographies

Stefanie Schäfer


Pages 235 - 254



Michelle Obama’s role as the first black First Lady of the U.S. is contextualized in discourses of feminism and race, in the historical meaning of the First Lady, and in the world of fashion and celebrity. Her strategy in engaging these discourses is described here as an ‘embodied rhetoric,’ in which she caters to media attention but refuses to comment on her fashion choices, thereby creating a void for interpretation that is filled by a plethora of readings. Drawing from biography and iconicity theory as well as fashion and First Lady Studies, this article discusses three iconic appearances of Obama that demonstrate her stances on the First Lady’s role, black female stereotypes, and fashion as empowerment, respectively. It examines the cultural work of two genres of celebrity texts, biographies and fashion biographies, in order to extrapolate her ‘real’ character and historical meaning for American womanhood. Obama’s case illustrates the interdependence between iconic persona and public mythmaking: The First Lady’s ‘office’ serves as a template for the creation of an American fashion icon. As a consequence, the Presidency is no longer a solitary office, but one occupied by a First Couple ruling by political and fashion power. This article discusses three iconic appearances of Obama that comment on her First Lady role, on black female stereotypes, and on fashion as empowerment, respectively. It examines how biographies and fashion biographies interpret these appearances in order to extrapolate her ‘real’ character and historical meaning for American womanhood.

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