Hit & Run: First lady of fashion

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The Independent Online

Michelle Obama has divided fashion pundits with her bold choices and individual sense of style, but here's the definitive proof that she's sartorially savvy: she's landed a much-coveted spot on the cover of the world's most influential fashion magazine. The Annie Leibovitz portrait, taken for the March issue of American Vogue , was leaked earlier this week on The Washington Post's fashion blog ahead of its official debut today. "Change was the clarion call of Barack Obama's election campaign," writes Anna Wintour in her editor's letter, "though I don't think any of us at Vogue initially realised that would include the difference that was going to be made by First Lady Michelle Obama's wardrobe."

So how did she handle her first big fashion moment? Hit & Run's cover-by-numbers guide has the lowdown.

1. The event. Michelle is only the second First Lady to have graced the cover of the hallowed glossy (circulation 1.2 million). Lou Hoover, wife of Herbert, appeared inside the magazine in 1929. But there has been only one other White House cover star – Hillary Clinton, who posed back in December 1998, after the Lewinsky affair. In that portrait, Clinton was straight-backed and regal in red and black. By comparison, this shot shows Michelle as much more vanilla and here-to-help. She's doing it, one imagines, to support husband and to wave the flag for American fashion – not a means of clearing up all the President's mess.

2. The dress. Unlike many of the magazine's cover stars, Michelle hasn't been "transformed" with an haute couture makeover but is dressed in a style that's clearly her own – and she's again plumped for the Taiwan-born designer Jason Wu, who created the white gown she wore to the inaugural balls. An elegant shift dress, high-necked but with cap sleeves to stop her looking too formal or buttoned-up, it's a style that she favoured throughout the campaign. Tailored to give a silhouette that's curvy but not provocative, this shade of pink chimes well with this season's bright, jewel colours while remaining feminine and fun. Above all, it isn't frivolous: this pinky hue is not of the "hot" or "baby" variety.

3. The arms. The Obamas are quietly proud of their physiques. "I think it's safe to say Michelle's first among First Ladies in the toned arm department," comments Belinda Luscombe, Time magazine's editor-at-large. Obama's attractively defined but not over-pumped triceps and biceps are a focal point, showing her to be strong and capable rather than a gym slave. Madonna, take note.

4. The photo. Michelle doesn't seem to have been the victim of heavy-handed digital tinkering. Her pose suggests she's settling down to hear about our latest boyfriend dilemmas. Hers isn't the posture of a steely matriarch, but that of a confident and welcoming consort.

5. The jewellery. Classic drop earrings and an elegant engagement ring are minimal but meaningful. "It's in keeping with the whole 'We're just like you' message," says Luscombe.

6. The supporting cast. Michelle is in good company in this unusuallyheavyweight issue; Mme Carla Bruni-Sarkozy could easily carry a cover herself, and Melinda Gates and Queen Rania of Jordan have suitable gravitas.

7. The location. Not the White House, but the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington. The cosy but slightly incongruous table lamp and the pretty-pretty flower arrangement next to it are approachable, feminine and just a little bland. "This cover is a win-win for everyone," says Luscombe. "It suggests that Michelle is a woman of accomplishment and power, but without slipping into any kind of more-macho-than-the-guys trap. Michelle seems to negotiate that post-feminist world really astutely."

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