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Obama Inauguration
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President-elect Barack Obama and Michelle Obama leave the Blair House before going to a service at St. John's Episcopal Church.
TODAY staff and wire
updated 1/20/2009 1:37:53 PM ET 2009-01-20T18:37:53

As the hours ticked down to the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, it was the question on everyone’s lips: Who would Michelle Obama wear?

Part of the answer was finally revealed Tuesday morning when the incoming first lady stepped out of Blair House in a dazzling gold sheath and matching coat by Isabel Toledo. She paired the ensemble with green gloves from J. Crew and green shoes.

Her bright color, applauded by many as a cheerful message of hope as well as a vote for the American fashion industry, was all the more dramatic next to the simple red tie and white shirt her husband wore with his suit to his moment in history, topped with an overcoat adorned with an American flag pin.

Their daughters were style icons in their own right, with 10-year-old Malia in a double-breasted periwinkle-blue coat with a blue-ribbon bow at the waist, and Sasha, 7, in a pink coat with orange scarf and satin belt, a coral-colored dress peeking out at the hem. Their coats were from Crewcuts by J. Crew.

Still to be revealed, however, was the larger question of which designer Obama would wear to the inaugural ball Tuesday night.

Trend setter
The fashion industry has anxiously looked to the election of Obama for months, embracing his wife as an emblem and ambassador of modern American style. She has won praise for her penchant for lesser-known designers and bold fashion choices, mixed with her unabashed love for mass fashion from mainstream American retailers.

Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com, said that Obama has found an elegant silhouette that works for her: the narrow sheath dress and complementary coat.

The inaugural outfit is a “classic choice — rather conservative compared to some of the things she's worn so far,” Phelps said. “This choice sends a great message to the fashion community. She could have gone with someone more obvious, like Ralph Lauren, but this sends a message to the American designers who are struggling.”

Agreed red-carpet and editorial stylist Mary Alice Stephenson: “She is single-handedly breathing new life into designers like Narciso Rodriguez and Isabel Toledo, who have had a rocky past.”

Designer’s designer
It was not the first time Michelle Obama opted for the 47-year-old Toledo, an avant-garde designer born in Cuba and little known outside the rarefied world of fashion. Last June, Obama appeared at a Calvin Klein fundraiser in Manhattan in a black tunic and palazzo pants Toledo had designed. Obama bought the outfit at Ikram, a Chicago outlet for Toledo's clothing line.

The former creative director of Anne Klein, Toledo is known as a “designer’s designer.” She works out of a Manhattan loft at Broadway and 28th Street. When Obama was seen wearing her tunic and pants last summer, a flattered Toledo commented that Obama was “a visual message that read, ‘I'm in control,’ ” the New York Daily News reported then.

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Obama has been noted for choosing unexpected fashion designers, including Narciso Rodriguez, Zero + Maria Cornejo and Chicago designer Maria Pinto. For the “Kids Inaugural” concert on Monday, she wore a J.Crew ensemble, including a metallic lace top, aqua-colored pencil skirt and cardigan.

‘Game-time decision’
Obama’s Inauguration Day choices continued to generate suspense right up to the event’s eve. “It is going to shock women across the country,” NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday morning. “I am told by a very good source that Michelle Obama has not yet chosen what to wear for either the inauguration tomorrow or the inaugural balls.”

Guthrie explained that Obama was not keeping the nation holding its breath on purpose. “The simple fact, as it was explained to me, is this is a woman who has moved her family three times in the last few weeks. She’s got a 7- and a 10-year-old,” Guthrie pointed out.

“Clearly, she has an array of choices, but apparently it’s going to be a game-time decision and Michelle Obama tomorrow — not even today, but tomorrow — will be in a position that so many women have been in, looking in their closets the day of a big event and thinking, ‘All right, which one should I wear?’ ” Guthrie added.

First ladies’ footsteps
Whatever the reason they took so long, Obama’s choices are sure to be the subject of debate and even sniping. It’s not a recent phenomenon.

According the The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, historians say that 148 years ago, Washington society tut-tutted over the extravagantly showy off-the-shoulder dress Mary Todd Lincoln wore to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball.

The subject is important enough for the Smithsonian to have a collection of the gowns worn by first ladies going back to the white silk-chiffon gown Helen Taft wore for William Howard Taft’s inauguration in 1909. More recently, the sleeveless ivory sheath that Jackie Kennedy designed herself for her husband’s 1961 inauguration still makes fashion critics swoon.

Slideshow: Gown and country: Inaugural ball gowns through the years Current first lady Laura Bush wore a crystal-embroidered red gown to her husband’s first inaugural ball. Nancy Reagan wore a $10,000 gown that designer James Galanos loaned her for the occasion.

And Rosalynn Carter, thinking she was being practical, got bludgeoned by the fashionistas for wearing the same blue chiffon gown to husband Jimmy’s inaugural ball that she had worn six years earlier when he was sworn in as governor of Georgia.

Study in contrasts
Michelle Obama’s sunny look Tuesday contrasted with that of Laura Bush, who wore a dove-gray skirt suit and matching coat.

On the podium with the Obamas, Vice President Joe Biden wore a bright blue tie, while his wife, Jill Biden, had on a bright red coat and high black leather boots.

Also catching style-watchers' eyes: Aretha Franklin singing to the immense crowd gathered at the Capitol in an over-the-top hat with an oversized bow and beading.

But Michelle Obama’s key fashion decision — what she would wear to her husband’s inaugural ball — was still generating suspense even as Barack Obama took the oath of office.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

Photos: Michelle Obama’s effortless style

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  1. Michelle Obama’s effortless style

    The first lady looks as sophisticated in designer dresses as she does in outfits from J. Crew. Take a look at her great style:

    Michelle Obama, wearing a a Michael Kors optic white dress, speaks during a talent show at the East Room of the White House May 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Silver lining

    Michelle Obama, wearing a festive shirtdress, hosts the annual Mother's Day tea to honor military mothers at the White House May 12, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Giving the bold shoulder

    Michelle Obama wears a white Marchesa gown with a drop shoulder strap at the annual White House Correspondent's Association Gala on May 3, 2014. (Olivier Douliery / Pool / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berry beautiful

    Michelle Obama smiles as she answers questions during the White House's annual "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day," on April 24, 2014, wearing a Sophie Theallet cardigan and leather and chiffon skirt. (Evan Vucci / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fashion forward

    First lady Michelle Obama wears a colorful wrap dress and sits with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and Maj. Gen. James McConville at a jobs fair for military members and spouses at Fort Campbell, Ky. on April 23, 2014. (Mark Humphrey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Keeping it casual

    Wearing a plaid blouse and black pants, the first lady walks her dogs Sunny and Bo on the South Lawn of the White House at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll in Washington on April 21, 2014. (Pool / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. White House, white dress

    Dressed in all white, Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama depart from the White House in Washington on April 20, 2014 as they head to Easter services at St. John's Episcopal Church. (Yuri Gripas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rappin'

    Michelle Obama and hip-hop artist Bow Wow hold a forum with high school students at Howard University in Washington on April 17, 2014. Obama rocked a maroon pantsuit and black flats. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Classy for a cause

    The first lady wears a simple black and blue striped skirt paired with a white top and matching shrug to speak at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, during a civil rights summit on April 10, 2014. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. In mourning

    President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama leave after paying their respects during a memorial service at Fort Hood in Texas on April 9, 2014. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Gettin' dirty

    First Lady Michelle Obama gets down and dirty in a tunic, pants and trenchcoat while planting oats with students at the White House Kitchen Garden at the White House in Washington on April 2, 2014. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Radiant in red

    First lady Michelle Obama, wearing a red Alexander McQueen gown, posed with her mother Marian Robinson during a visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan at the Diaoyutai State guest house on March 21, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Andy Wong / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ping-pong fun

    Michelle Obama plays table tennis at the Beijing Normal School, a school that prepares students to attend colleges overseas, in Beijing, China on March 21, 2014. (Andy Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Welcome to China

    Michelle Obama waves as she and her daughter Sasha leave their plane at Capital International Airport in Beijing on March 20, 2014. (Alexander F. Yuan / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Green day

    Vice president Joe Biden, first lady Michelle Obama, and Irish Prime Mininster Enda Kenny's wife Fionnuala O'Kelly smile during a St. Patrick's Day reception in the East Room of the White House on March 14, 2014. (Ron Sachs / Pool / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. We're green with envy

    Kermit the Frog is welcomed by Michelle Obama, who is wearing a printed Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress, at a screening of Disney's "Muppets Most Wanted" on March 12, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Win Mcnamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Seeking shades

    President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Homestead Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Florida on March 9, 2014. (Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Pretty prints

    Michelle Obama delivers remarks during s workshop titled "I'm Every Woman: The History of Women in Soul" with (L-R) Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli, and music artists Melissa Etheridge, Janelle Monae and Patti LaBelle in the State Dining Room at the White House March 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Jump to it

    Michelle Obama sports a chic black jumpsuit during an interview with Jimmy Fallon on Feb. 20, 2014. (NBC; Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pretty as a painting

    Michelle Obama, in a bold print skirt, is escorted by Rose Cameron, CEO and founder of WAT-AAH!, a line of bottled water targeted to kids and teens, as they view the "Taking Back the Streets" art exhibit at the New Museum in New York on Feb. 20. (Richard Drew / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Snow bunny

    Michelle Obama skis at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo. on Feb. 15. This is the third year in a row that Michelle Obama has vacationed in Aspen over the long President's Day weekend. (Chris Council / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Ultimate elegance

    President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, in a dramatic Carolina Herrera ball gown, arrive at a state dinner at the White House on Feb. 11. The dress featured a sheer black top with hand-embroidered and beaded appliques and sleeves that dipped just below the first lady's elbows. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Lady in red

    First lady Michelle Obama wears a ravinshing red Thom Browne coat and, along with French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama, waves at the balcony of the White House on Feb. 11. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Deep green

    Michelle Obama, in a hunter green Azzedine Alaïa dress, waves next to U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who was injured while serving in Afghanistan, prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech in Washington on Jan. 28, 2014. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Vision in blue

    First Lady Michelle Obama smiles as she listens to President Barack Obama speak at an event on expanding college opportunity in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Jan. 16, 2014. (Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Bold bling

    Michelle Obama wore a festive lucite necklace while speaking about education in underserved communities in the State Dining Room following a screening of the movie "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" at the White House on Jan. 15, 2014. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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