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Michelle Obama wears Isabel Toledo to swearing-in

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 designerIt 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.

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 Photos

    Shannon Stapleton / X90052

    Image: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at the Inaugural Ball in Washington

    Gown and country: Inaugural ball gowns through the years

    It's not an inauguration without glamorous galas — and fabulous first lady fashions to match. Here's a look back.

  • Image: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at the Inaugural Ball in Washington

    Gown and country: Inaugural ball gowns through the years

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    Wu-ing the crowd, again -

    Part coronation and part celebration, preidential inaugurations are full of pomp and circumstance -- and glamourous galas. And at these elegant events, all eyes are often on the first lady and her ball gowns. Here's a glimpse into history's inagural outfits. First lady Michelle Obama wore a custom ruby-colored chiffon and velvet gown designed by Jason Wu to her husband's inauguration balls on Jan. 21, 2013. It was the second time Mrs. Obama wore a Wu-designed gown on inauguration night.

    Reuters / Reuters
  • U.S. President Obama walks on stage with first lady Michelle during the Western States Inaugural Ball in Washington

    Gown and country: Inaugural ball gowns through the years

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    Floating on air -

    After weeks of top designers vying for the honor in 2009, Michelle Obama finally unveiled the winning creation -- a white chiffon, one-shoulder gown by then-26-year-old designer Jason Wu, who was little known outside the fashion world at the time. The long, ethereal dress highlighted the first lady's well-toned arms. After the evening's first dance, Barack Obama asked a cheering crowd "How good-looking is my wife?"

    Reuters / Reuters
  • Liberty Ball

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    Sheer elegance -

    Like Hillary Clinton before her, Laura Bush also went for an Oscar de la Renta gown for her husband's second inauguration in 2005. The ice-blue and silver embroidered tulle V-neck dress cam with a matching duchess satin coat.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • BUSH

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    Primary color -

    For George W. Bush's inaugural bash in 2001, Laura Bush selected a ruby-red, crystal-embellished Chantilly lace gown by little-known Dallas-based designer Michael Faircloth. She donated the gown to the Smithsonian in 2002.

    AP / AP
  • CLINTON

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    Striking gold -

    For her husband's second inauguration, in 1997, Hillary Clinton made up for 1993's fashion faux pas by choosing a tried-and-true designer: Oscar de la Renta. The sparkly gold-lace dress was altered to give it a high collar and long sleeves, and the effect was both sleek and sexy.

    AP / AP
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    No shrinking violet -

    Always seen more as a modern businesswoman than a style icon, Hillary Clinton was criticized for wearing this violet beaded gown to Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural ball. The dress was made by little-known Arkansas designer Sarah Phillips.

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    Blue velvet -

    Barbara Bush's 1989 gown choice was received well at George H. Bush's inaugural celebration - the sapphire-blue velvet and satin piece with the diagonal dropped waist suited her age and body type. It was made by New York designer Arnold Scaasi. The first lady accessorized the gown with a set of signature pearls.

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    Beaded beauty -

    For her husband's second inauguration in 1985, Nancy Reagan stuck to the same designer, James Galanos. The Austrian and Czechoslovakian glass beads on her white chiffon gown took more than 300 hours to apply by hand. One news account place the cost of the dress at more than $46,000, drawing criticism for the first lady's choice.

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  • REAGAN RONALD NANCY

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    Grand gown -

    Nancy Reagan wore a one-shoulder sheath gown to Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural ball. The fern-patterned lace featured crystal and bugle beads and rested over silk satin. The piece was made by American designer James Galanos. The Reagans were scheduled to appear at nine balls that evening.

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    Frugal flavor -

    Rosalynn Carter's gown choice was panned by the fashion press when she wore it to Jimmy Carter's 1977 inauguration festivities, mostly because she had previously worn it to her husband's gubernatorial party six years earlier. The blue gown was not couture - it was made by Mary Matise for Jimmae. The sentimental move may have helped set a thrifty, "down-home" tone for the Carter administration.

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    Crystal ball -

    Richard Nixon, his wife Pat (right), Vice President Spiro Agnew and Judy Agnew (left) share the spotlight at one of six inaugural balls held for Nixon in 1969. Pat's mimosa silk satin gown was designed by Karen Stark for Harvey Berin. She wore a jacket encrusted with Austrian crystals to complete the look.

    AP / AP
  • Johnson Humphrey

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    Bird-watching -

    Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson, left, and Vice President-elect Hubert Humphrey and his wife Muriel, look happy and elegant at a 1965 gala that was held three days before the inaugural ceremony. Lady Bird had a tough act to follow (Jackie O. set quite a high standard), and the John Moore yellow satin gown (not pictured) that she wore to a different ball was highly criticized.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS / ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • Gown and country: Inaugural ball gowns through the years

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    Enter Camelot -

    Style icon Jacqueline Kennedy wore this specially designed haute couture silk sheath and matching coat to a series of balls celebrating John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. The off-white sleeveless gown - make by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Goodman - was the first lady's concept. With style statements like this, the Kennedys brought a cultured and glamorous era known as "Camelot" to American politics.

    AP / AP
  • Dwight And Mamie Eisenhower And Richard And Pat Nixon

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    Belles of the ball -

    Here, Dwight D. Eisenhower (second from right) and his wife, Mamie, pose at Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural ball with Vice President Richard. M. Nixon (left) and his wife, Pat. Mamie's silk peau de soie gown was embroidered with 2,000 pink rhinestones, and the gathered waist and full skirt captured the calssic design of the 1950s. It was designed by New York City's Nettie Rosenstein Inc.

    Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image / Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

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.

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