Blasblog: The Story of Mrs. O
Even before Michelle Obama moved into the White House, publishers were scrambling to meet with the public’s demand for books on the new First Family. But while some of those books now seem slapdash or rushed, next month will see the release of Mrs. O, a colorful hardback written by blogger Mary Tomer, dedicated to Mrs. Obama’s style from her early days as a student to her role as the first African-American First Lady in the nation’s history. Tomer explains her project as a labor of love, one that began when she first clocked Mrs. Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, joining the president on stage after the speech that vaulted him into the collective consciousness.
When the couple began to campaign, Tomer became so enamored with Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe that she started a Web site called Mrs-O.org, chronicling everything from the Donna Ricco dress she wore on The View to the Thakoon and J.Crew pieces we’re now so familiar with. Mrs-O.org laid the groundwork for Tomer’s book, which boasts not only the back story behind many of her famous appearances, but also interviews with some of the designers and fashion personalities that have become synonymous with the First Lady’s style, including André Leon Talley, Isabel Toledo, Jason Wu, and Michael Kors. Here, we talk to Tomer about whether Mrs. O is like Jackie O, what she’d do if she ever met the First Lady, and just how she scored all those interviews.
Is there a power to Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe that might not have been recognized in a First Lady of years past?
Dress is a means of visual communication, and I think it’s a language that Mrs. Obama speaks well. When the First Lady of the United States wears a dress from Target or cardigan from J.Crew, real women from around the country relate to her. When she wears ensembles from Rodarte or Thakoon on an international stage, she elevates the perception of American culture and sophistication. Certain looks can even convey different moods. When Mrs. Obama chose the lemongrass Isabel Toledo dress and coat worn for the inauguration, she projected a definite sense of optimism to the American people. Certainly, style has become a powerful, positive part of Michelle Obama’s image. I think it’s an asset that shouldn’t be overlooked or undervalued.
Mrs. Obama has often been likened to Jacqueline Kennedy. Do you agree with the comparison?
The media latched on to this comparison and ran with it. Along the way, it became much too literal. Jacqueline Kennedy predominantly wore clothes from Oleg Cassini during her White House years, committing to a more singular, iconic silhouette. On the other hand, Michelle Obama has embraced a wide range of designers, styles, and price points. She’s shown that her style is eclectic and multifaceted. Where the comparison is more valid, I believe, is in the sense of excitement and intrigue that surrounds both women. There was a moment, watching the DNC in 2008, when I realized my generation had found its Jackie O. I think there’s a certain way we feel about Michelle Obama that perhaps hasn’t been felt about a First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.
How was your experience working on this book?
The chance to meet designers I greatly admire was beyond exciting. I’m one of those girls that still delights in the arrival of the new J.Crew catalog. To be reading “Jenna’s Picks” one day, and then to be sitting in her office the next, it was honestly a dream. Those kinds of experiences played out throughout the project and will be cherished.
Was it difficult to get people involved in the book? I’m sure her stable of designers—Toledo, Wu, Kors, Thakoon, etc.—are approached for these projects so often to talk about Mrs. Obama. Are they still happy to be talking about their designs for her?
Most of the interviews were conducted in April 2009, so I think the excitement of the inauguration was still pretty fresh. Across the board, there was a tremendous respect for the First Lady, and out of that, a certain mindfulness about taking interviews. My aim was to explore the designer’s background, design ethos, and inspiration behind pieces worn by Michelle Obama. And generally, I found they were happy to discuss those topics. That being said, it did take weeks of persistence to secure the interviews!
What sets this book apart from the many other Mrs. Obama books currently at the bookstore?
It’s the first to include interviews with all the key designers. There are 13 full Q&A interviews, including interviews with Isabel Toledo, Jason Wu, Michael Kors, Maria Pinto, and others. The book features original photography of archival samples of the First Lady’s key looks, offering rich new perspective on the detail and craftsmanship of the clothes, shoes, and accessories. And the final chapter of the book includes quotes contributed from Mrs-O.org regulars, interspersed with original artwork inspired by Michelle Obama. The Carter Kustera portrait of Mrs. O is a must-see!
Have you ever heard from Mrs. Obama, or her office?
When I was started work on the book, I wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama to tell her about the project and to request an interview—a long shot, but I had to try. I received a letter back from Tyler Lechtenberg, the Associate Director of Correspondence for the Office of the First Lady, thanking me for my letter on behalf of the First Lady but declining the request. I’ve saved it, of course; it’s on very lovely engraved stationery.
What would you do if you met her?
I’m sure I would be nervous. I don’t think I would ask about her style. Somehow it feels like it might be impolite. I would love to know more about her decision to leave corporate law and enter public service in her late 20s. Also, I’m dying to know how she finds the energy to do it all. Some days I feel exhausted keeping up with her schedule, and I’m just blogging!