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.
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.”
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.
- Lawrence of Arabia Star Omar Sharif Is Suffering from Alzheimer's, Says Son
- What Happened When Ray Liotta and Christopher Walken Sat Next to Each Other on a Flight?
- Never Hear 'You Look Tired' Again - Thanks to This Beauty Product
- Police Recover Body in Hudson River Near Where Kayaker Disappeared
- So Fetch! Regina George's Mean Girls Mansion Is Up for Sale
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.
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