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The fashion evolution of Michelle Obama

Star power: Speaking at the Democratic National Convention

Star power: Speaking at the Democratic National Convention in September, 2012, Michelle Obama wore a custom rayon and silk dress by Tracy Reese. Credit: Getty Images

After four brightly colored, eclectic, belted, arm-baring, brooch-embellished years, fashion pundits agree that Michelle Obama has found her niche and upped her fashion game.

"She's more confident than ever now, more streamlined, sharper and less quirky," says Kate Betts, a fashion expert and author of "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style" (Clarkson Potter, $35). "She's even a little more conservative than before. She's announcing herself as the hostess of the White House, and she knows exactly how to construct her image."

Her choices are democratic, ranging from J.Crew to cutting-edge designers such as Jason Wu, Thakoon and Prabal Gurung, all of whom gained significant visibility from her patronage. She's as comfortable in a Target or an H&M number (which often sell out after she's seen in them) as she is in a high-end gown from Michael Kors or Naeem Khan. And she doesn't hesitate to wear an outfit more than once, showing sensitivity to difficult economic times.

"You have to respect somebody who's shopping in her own closet when the message is that money is scarce," says Fern Mallis, host of the SiriusXM satellite radio show "Fashion Insiders With Fern Mallis," who also occasionally provides designer contact information to Meredith Koop, Obama's aide and wardrobe adviser. "She was an unknown commodity when she first came on the scene," adds Mallis, "but she has totally evolved. She exudes confidence, and I think she's been a remarkable first lady in terms of style and fashion."

Constance White, the editor in chief of Essence Magazine, suggests that Obama has more than just raised the bar. "I believe, when all is said and done, she'll have had a bigger impact than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie was inspirational and copied; Michelle has been that, too, but she also wears clothes that people can go out and buy. And they do."

Indeed. A 2010 study by New York University's Stern School published in the Harvard Business Review showed that a single Obama appearance in a branded garment jumped stock prices and company sales dramatically and calculated that Obama's economic boost to the overall industry was about $2.7 billion.

So what is "Obamawear"?

"There's no question that many of her looks hearken back to the '50s, with cinched waists, flared skirts," says White, "though for evening, it's high glamour."

Betts concurs. "It's '50s housewife mom, bright and colorful, printed dresses, belts and cardigans, all very homey," she says. "She recognizes that the expectations are traditional."

While Obama's fashion track record is excellent, she has had her off days. There was the kerfuffle over her baring of arms and wearing shorts and hiking boots on vacation (many felt the look was not befitting a first lady). Some debated the merits of choosing a gown by British designer Alexander McQueen to a state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Others felt the cardigan she donned to meet the Queen of England was inappropriate. There were some too-big collars and too-graphic prints. As for the white Jason Wu Inaugural Ball gown? Some dubbed it "prommy."

Which brings us to the inaugural festivities this time, when all eyes will be on fashion's leading lady. What will she wear? "Something that she's worn before," says Betts. "I would put money on it -- not that much money -- but remember me when you see her at the ball in a repeat."

Her signatures

Michelle Obama has worn everything from H&M to high fashion, but while her looks and labels are ever-changing, she has several signature moves (besides the bare arms):

* Bright colors: The first lady looks swell in black but virtually beams when she wears colors. While she's hardly missed a shade, she seems to favor pink, purple and red.

* Statement jewelry: It's her thing. Whether it's ropes of beads or one big, stunning brooch, you can almost count on it as part of the Obama look.

* Nipped waists: Obama's Azzedine Alaia belt has notably turned up around her waist on numerous occasions, but, in fact, waist emphasis has become integral to her style.

In case she asks

Here's how fashion experts would have outfitted Michelle Obama for Monday's inauguration

Constance White, editor in chief of Essence magazine

Day: "Michael Kors. She does need an ensemble. It's cold, and she requires a certain practicality with layered matching pieces that require gravitas."

Night: "I would love to see her in something sexy and body conscious for the Inaugural Ball, like Tom Ford or Naeem Kahn, because last time she went so princessy." Adds White, "I would love to see her feature an African-American designer."

Adam Glassman, creative director of O the Oprah Magazine

Day: "A fabulous L'Wren Scott pencil skirt, jacket and lacy, chiffony blouse. It's not too matchy, has a casual ease and is very sophisticated but doesn't look too done. Or, the other person, Vera Wang, who used a lot of color pre-fall. It's lady with a bit of edge."

Night: "I think she should wear color the second time around, something like yellow that says it's a new day. Maybe Donna Karan or Michael Kors, both are still glamorous and ball appropriate. For the second round, people are not going to be as dressed up."

Robert Verdi, celebrity stylist and television personality

Day: "I wouldn't be upset if she wore Proenza Schouler. It's a cool brand befitting of a modern woman and mom. Or maybe a female designer like Lela Rose."

Night: "Monique Lhuillier. She cuts a beautiful dress and has created a great business by being consistent and persistent."

Fern Mallis, host of the SiriusXM satellite radio show "Fashion Insiders with Fern Mallis"

Day: "Joseph Altuzarra does unbelievably beautiful tailored jackets and dresses with a twist . . . and would look great on camera."

Night: "Bibhu Mohapatra's sexy, happy, sophisticated, glamorous eveningwear is perfect for Michelle."

Kate Betts, fashion expert and author of "Everyday Icon, Michelle Obama and the Power of Style" (Clarkson Potter, $35)

Day: "I think it would be really cool if she wore J. Crew. They have an emerald green coat in the catalog that she could wear over a dress."

Night: "Something she's worn before, maybe the dark gray strapless embroidered gown [Peter Soronen] or the bright pink Michael Kors." (It was a sheath she wore to the White House Correspondents' dinner). Or, if it's not a repeat, Betts says she's betting on Michael Kors.

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