Michelle Obama’s custom portrait dress shows her legacy

Barack and Michelle Obama revealed their presidential portraits to the 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 — there were a handful of covert messages hidden in the former First Lady’s portrait.

Artist Amy Sherald created 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 evoking the same sense of approachability and sensibility that Obama communicated during her tenure.

But it’s Obama’s choice as Milly as a designer that may send the most direct political statement, because Smith is known for her outspoken activism. In September, she debuted t-shirts commemorating 100 years of Planned Parenthood, for which 100 percent of the proceeds would benefit the non-profit women’s healthcare 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 activism 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.”

Obama’s dress, Smith told The Washington Post, “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 Obama’s worn something from Smith. In her final White House photographs just before President Trump’s inauguration, Obama 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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