Yesterday Barack and Michelle Obama’s beautiful Smithsonian portraits were unveiled. Barack’s image was painted by Kehinde Wiley, while Amy Sherald is the artist who captured Michelle. Both artists were handpicked by the couple for their unique styles, and the portraits as a result represented a wonderful diversion from the traditional portraits of presidents and first ladies.
After Michelle’s portrait was revealed, some questioned the significance of the former First Lady’s flowing, floor-length, extremely prominent gown. It's cotton poplin dress designed by Michelle Smith and inspired by Smith's Spring 2017 collection for Milly. The minimal dress is not only an elegant choice, but a political one.
As Smith explained to The Washington Post, that season’s collection was inspired by “desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality.” Smith told Vogue that the dress is “clean, minimal geometric print without a reference to anything past or nostalgic” and “forward-thinking.”
Forward-thinking is an especially accurate way to describe Michelle Obama, who in an Instagram post references the future young women of color who will look at the six-foot-five characterization and see themselves. “This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways,” she wrote.
During the unveiling of the portraits, Sherald also spoke about how the dress reminded her of the painter Mondrian and quilts made by the black women who come from the community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. In this way, the dress is also a nod to the heritage and artistry of other black women in America.
Smith offered to make Obama a custom version of the original dress, but Obama decided on the runway version with a small alteration, closing the open back. The new dress also includes the practical addition of pockets for the former First Lady. “It’s up to Mrs. Obama to say why she chose this for the portrait, but I would say that it’s a very modern, emotional dress with a very womanly, very American spirit,” Smith said.