Barack Obama famously said he aspired to be a transformative figure in American history, à la Reagan. Historians can argue over that, but I’m prepared right now to assert — though somewhat grumpily — that Michelle Obama has been transformative, à la Kennedy.
That’s Jack Kennedy, not Jackie. No other figure in modern American history influenced the way half the population dresses as much as JFK — until Mrs. Obama.
Much has been written about her personal style, but less about its impact on other women’s appearance and comfort. Pundits say Donald Trump will undo much of his predecessor’s legacy. All politics aside, could the new First Lady do the same? Is it too early for hope and change? Because I’m old, cold, and slightly flabby. I want my sleeves back.
Doing to Sleeves What Kennedy Did for Hats
From the get-go, Mrs. Obama’s style garnered great coverage — its bold colors and prints, high-low mix of designer and mass-market pieces, a more youthful sensibility — but what caught people’s attention more than anything was her preference for sleeveless dresses, along with glowing accolades for her well-toned arms. She has done for sleeves what Jack Kennedy did for hats. She’s made them disappear.
— Kirk (@DrWambua) July 22, 2015
We think of Jackie Kennedy as one of the most stylish First Ladies ever, but her clean-lined dresses and matching jackets, usually in cool sherbet shades, were the epitome of a ladylike elegance that women of her era already aspired to. It was her husband who actually altered fashion.
To convey his youthful vigor, JFK abandoned the hat and let his thick locks move freely in the wind. It was a fresh image for an ascendant nation, and it transformed how men look, how they cut their hair, where they shop, and what choices they have. For 50 years, men of a more practical or old-fashioned bent have had a hard time finding a decent topper.
Women have experienced a similar clothing revolution. Walk into any department store today, even in winter, and you will be hard-pressed to find dresses with sleeves. No matter how heavy the fabric or dark the color, the likelihood of it having sleeves is — by my scientific hand-count at a couple of large department stores — well below 50 percent.
— Barack Obama News (@ObamaNews) August 22, 2014
It Even Changes Our Posture
The effect extends beyond store racks. This trend has also changed how women stand. Look closely at any publication’s “society” or “party scene” page, or even at news photos, and you’ll notice it: Since bare upper arms look pretty squishy when held close to the body, you’ll now see women posing with their hands on their hips — unthinkably tacky in years gone by — or, more subtly, with hands clasped behind their backs, like Marines at inspection.
The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan says I cannot, um, pin all this on Mrs. Obama.
“The fashion industry had already been championing [the sleeveless look] for quite some time,” Givhan says, but certainly Mrs. Obama “embraced it and validated it for professional women.” It is now what Givhan and others call a “power look.”
— RightToBAREarmsCmpgn (@trhsBAREarms) September 30, 2012
Sleeveless styles make financial sense for clothing producers, of course. As anyone who sews can attest, putting sleeves in a garment takes time, and they complicate the fit across bosom, back, and shoulders. Leaving them off expands the range of body-types a dress will fit and therefore increases the potential pool of customers.
But I believe there is a vast dissatisfied market out there. Give me your tired of dieting, your poorly toned, your over-40s, yearning not to breathe free! We’ll flex our power without flexing our biceps, okay? Not every man has Jack Kennedy’s hair, and not every woman has Michelle Obama’s arms. Some body parts just look better covered up.
Melania Trump has no jiggles to hide, but I’m heartened by the white Roksana Ilincic dress with bracelet-length sleeves she wore for her convention speech. It sold out within the hour. The layered fabric of her election-night Ralph Lauren jumpsuit fluttered nearly to her elbows. The glittering gold Reem Acra gown she wore to a pre-inauguration dinner — long sleeves!
— AOL Lifestyle (@AOLLifestyle) July 23, 2016
— Zoey Thaleia (@TheodorZoe) November 22, 2016
— The Bridal Council (@bridalcouncil) January 25, 2017
Yes, JFK famously forsook the fedora, but jazzers never really gave up on the porkpie, hip-hoppers own the baseball cap, and now hipsters are bringing back headgear of all kinds. Could the same be ahead for women? I certainly hope so. On this one matter, I am eager to surrender the right to bare arms.