'The Mrs. Obama effect': First lady's boldest looks redefine style

Host President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, arrive at the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors reception honoring the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors ... Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
President Obama and the first lady arrive at the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors reception at the White House in December.
First lady Michelle Obama walks the route as the presidential inaugural parade winds through the nation's capital in Washington, DC., USA,... CHIP SOMODEVILLA / POOL / EPA
Obama in a Thom Browne jacket and studded J. Crew belt

Fifty indeed looks fabulous on Michelle Obama, the first lady who ushered style back into the White House with her daring choices, bold confidence, and flair for baring arms — and a shoulder or two.

Mrs. Obama reached the half-century mark Friday, more than five years after she introduced the nation to her self-assured style.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a first lady who did not dress to fit in with the style you see with so many Washington politician wives,” said fashion writer Kate Betts, author of “Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.”

“She’s not dressing to somebody else’s ideal. She’s dressing for herself, not for the conservative Washington scene, and that’s a very bold statement coming from a first lady," Betts said.

Obama’s penchant for recycling her outfits, favoring cardigans over blazers, and mixing designer labels with shopping-mall brand names gave her instant appeal. 

“She’s been a complete game-changer. I think she even set the tone for Kate Middleton,” said style expert Rebekah George. “She really raised the bar for fashion, just making it practical and attainable for the average woman.”

US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) touches her 2009 inaugural gown as the designer of Mrs. Obama’s inaugural dress, Jason Wu, looks on during a ceremo... JEWEL SAMAD / AFP - Getty Images
The first lady touches her 2009 inaugural gown as its designer, Jason Wu, looks on during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Before Obama, no other first lady had introduced H&M, Gap or Zara into the White House wardrobe, or sold out a J. Crew belt just by wearing it over a Thom Browne jacket for her husband's second inauguration. Obama's impact on the clothing industry has actually inspired studies by business schools.

"The second she puts something on, retail sales go off the charts. It's incredible," said Hitha Prabhakar, chief research officer at AitchPe Retail Advisory. "You talk about the Kate Middleton effect? It’s like the Mrs. Obama effect."

Obama has consistently supported relatively obscure and avant-garde designers like Browne and Isabel Toledo, turning them into household names virtually overnight. She most famously did that with Jason Wu, whose gowns she selected for two successive inaugural balls. 

Obama’s love of risk-taking also extends to her hair. For her birthday last year, she revealed bangs, which she later jokingly called “my midlife crisis.” The 'do “set off a national conversation" that illustrated the deep impact of her styling choices.

She dresses down, too, whether it's capri pants in the White House garden, or yoga pants and sweatshirts while promoting her “Let’s Move!” initiative.

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama laughs next to Perry the Platypus from the children's TV show "Phineas and Ferb", during a "Let's Move!" faith and comm... KEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters
Laughing with Perry the Platypus during a "Let's Move!" event at Disney World.

But the first lady admits there have also been missteps.

She recently revealed she regretted wearing shorts while stepping off of Air Force One during an August 2009 trip to Arizona. Obama noted her outfit "created a huge stink" at the time, making some uncomfortable because they revealed far more of a first lady than the nation was used to.

That criticism came at the heels of gripes over her baring too much skin — on her arms.

First lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia Obama, walk off Air Force One at Grand Canyon National Park Airport in Tusayan, Ariz.,  Sunday, Aug. 16, ... Dana Felthauser / AP
The controversial shorts that "created a huge stink" for the first lady.

Beginning with her 2009 one-shouldered inaugural gown, Obama famously has famously showed off her spectacularly toned arms in sleeveless gowns and dresses. She ignored the critics and increasingly bared her shoulders altogether in strapless gowns at formal events, most recently at the Kennedy Center Honors reception at the White House last month.

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend the Commander-in-Chief's Ball, honoring US service members and their families, at the W... JEWEL SAMAD / AFP - Getty Images file
The first lady at the Commander-in-Chief's ball, honoring US service members and their families on the night of the 2013 inauguration.

"Michelle Obama is not afraid to look sexy," George said. "She’s not afraid to look trendy and try different styles that are feminine but still empowering." 

  • Slideshow Photos

    Alex Wong / Getty Images North America

    Image: First Lady Michelle Obama Hosts Talent Show At White House

    Michelle Obama's effortless style

    The first lady looks as sophisticated in designer dresses as she does in outfits from J. Crew.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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
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    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.

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    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.

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    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
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    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.

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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    Jump to it -

    Michelle Obama sports a chic black jumpsuit during an interview with Jimmy Fallon on Feb. 20, 2014.

    NBC; Getty Images
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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