Why Does a First Lady's Hairstyle Matter?

With all that’s going on in the world, why exactly is the FLOTUS’s fringe newsworthy? While on the surface it may seem frivolous to talk about a First Lady in terms of her appearance, there’s a lot of symbolism tied up in First Lady style, and Michelle Obama is certainly not the first FLOTUS whose hair became the talk of the country.
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With all that’s going on in the world, why exactly is the FLOTUS’s fringe newsworthy? While on the surface it may seem frivolous to talk about a First Lady in terms of her appearance, there’s a lot of symbolism tied up in First Lady style, and Michelle Obama is certainly not the first FLOTUS whose hair became the talk of the country.
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On Thursday, pictures of First Lady Michelle Obama sporting new bangs hit the internet and subsequently caused a sensation. If you do a Google search for "Michelle Obama bangs," about 70 million results pop up. From US Weekly to NPR, every major outlet wrote about it. Kelly Ripa donned clip-ins on her show the next day and a few Today show staffers were inspired to cut what have now been christened “Obama Bangs.” Today the New York Daily News ran with the coverline "In With a Bang."

With all that’s going on in the world, why exactly is the FLOTUS’s fringe newsworthy?

While on the surface it may seem frivolous to talk about a First Lady in terms of her appearance, there’s a lot of symbolism tied up in First Lady style, and Michelle Obama is certainly not the first FLOTUS whose hair became the talk of the country.

“The First Lady with her style sets an emotional tone for the family who’s in the White House,” Kate Betts, fashion journalist and author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, told us. According to Betts, First Ladies reflect the time they live in, but are also expected to “shape” their time. Some First Ladies have been more successful than others in doing this with their style.

Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower was the consummate housewife in the '50s during her husband’s Presidency, at a time when being the perfect hostess was ostensibly every woman’s goal. “Mamie was adored because she played the housewife role to a T,” Betts said.

Mamie also happened to have some killer bangs, which were very short--think Rooney Mara circa the Lisbeth Salander days--and curled under (not to mention those Princess Leia side buns). Her hair was as much a part of her legend as the parties she hosted. “Men and women wrote letters to major national hard news magazines criticizing, praising, and being bewildered by the ‘Mamie Bangs,’ but they eventually became popular with many women by the late 1950s who copied them,” Carl Sferrazza Anthony, an expert on First Ladies and the author of numerous books on the topic, told us. “Some novelty company even made fake paper bangs people could buy and stick on their foreheads as a gag gift.” Apparently she even had Elizabeth Arden draw up detailed directions for how to get the look--sort of the equivalent of a modern day YouTube tutorial.

Frankie Cleveland

Frankie Cleveland

Frances “Frankie” Cleveland was more than 20 years younger than her husband, President Grover Cleveland. She was young, attractive, and became an instant It-girl; she also caused a hair sensation during her time in the White House (the late 1800s). “She shaved the back of her neck clean and wore her longer hair up. College girls went insane for this and droves of them got the ‘a la Frankie’ haircut,” Anthony told us.

But the grande dame of influential First Lady hair? Jackie Kennedy, of course.

Anthony said booklets were distributed to women detailing how to recreate Jackie’s coif. “People thought that if they copied her hair and her clothes they could be just like her,” Anthony said. It’s worth noting that even Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of JFK’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson, had the Jackie Kennedy bouffant when she took over as First Lady after JFK’s assassination.

First Lady hair miscalculations happen, too.

The most notable example is Hillary Clinton, whose headbands, scrunchies, and frequent style changes have been a source of national discussion and often ridicule. “She didn’t come out and make a statement and just own it. She changed her hair all the time and that became a real problem for her,” Betts said. “People started to discuss that a lot and tag her as indecisive.” Anthony thinks people read too much into Clinton’s frequent makeovers, saying she was still the same core person--and she ended up becoming the first First Lady to be elected to public office. Clinton herself still makes jokes about her hair kerfuffles.

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While Clinton had to put up with a lot of criticism, it’s almost worse if you make no statement at all. Case in point: Laura Bush. Do you remember anything at all about her hair or her style in general? Probably not, and that’s a calculated decision too, which can definitely affect a First Lady’s legacy.

“[Laura Bush] dressed in a very bland kind of simple way and she dressed to fit in. She really adopted the Washington political wife uniform. She didn’t stand out at all and therefore we don’t remember what she did in the White House,” Betts said. “And she happens to be one of the First Ladies who contributed more than most, in terms of being an advocate for literacy, education, and libraries.”

It’s a bit surprising that Michelle Obama made a change to her hair just prior to the inauguration, but it still fits her style. It’s enough of a change to make her seem just a teeny bit edgy, yet it’s still within her comfort zone and not that different from her signature look. Betts predicted that she did it to draw attention away from the fact that she’s maybe going to be wearing a repeat gown to the inauguration ball.

When we asked Anthony about First Ladies making hair changes during their husbands’ second term (and this was before we saw the FLOTUS’s new bangs) he said, “[First Ladies] get older, like everyone does, so they adapt along the way.”

Obama has proved that she’s pretty savvy in that regard. The bangs really do make her look younger--she’s an amazing symbol of what her husband’s second term could be: Same core values, but a little bit more energized.