TODAY   |  September 30, 2014

First lady fashion

Jan. 16: Glamour magazine’s Cynthia Leive talks to TODAY’s Ann Curry about why Michelle Obama’s inauguration attire is so important to Americans.

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ANN CURRY, co-host: This morning on our COUNTDOWN TO THE INAUGURATION , first lady fashion. With four days to go, much of the focus is on the new president; but many are also curious about what Michelle Obama will be wearing. For generations, first ladies have had a major influence on American women and their style. And the inauguration, ending with a night filled with extravagant balls and celebrations, is the first time the first lady steps out in her new role. So come Tuesday the spotlight will be on the incoming first lady, Michelle Obama . And who better to give us a preview is Cindy Levy , the Glamour magazine 's editor in chief and TODAY's women 's lifestyle contributor. Cindy , good morning.

Ms. CINDY LEVY: Good morning.

CURRY: Now, why is it such a hot topic ? I mean explain -- you know, we're all so curious, but why?

Ms. LEVY: We're fascinated. I mean, first of all, it's the first chance that a first lady has to tell the world what kind of a first lady she's going to be. Are you going to glamorous or conservative or lavish or frugal? It's a message that you're sending. And Michelle Obama , more than any other first lady recently, really understands the power of clothes. So all eyes are on her. In the fashion world, this is the Super Bowl .

CURRY: So essentially -- so get out your popcorn and your chips and dip.

Ms. LEVY: We have a pool going in my office, literally.

CURRY: Do you.

Ms. LEVY: Yeah, yeah.

CURRY: Oh, my goodness. And -- oh, in terms of which designer it's going to be.

Ms. LEVY: Yep.

CURRY: It all started with Dolly Madison . When she -- when she got up there and she was the first lady, what she wore set the trends for others. And this was back in what, 1809 .

Ms. LEVY: 1809 . Well, this was the first official inaugural ball. I mean, Martha Washington hadn't even attended her husband's inaugural ball, so this was a big deal . And the dress that you see here, which is at the Smithsonian now, was pale blue , it had an empire waist, and people really followed the style afterward. Now, it wasn't a risky dress , but it was glamorous and it established that idea that the inaugural ball was a glamorous moment.

CURRY: In recent memory, the first lady who really established herself as the most iconic in terms of fashion is Jackie Kennedy .

Ms. LEVY: Absolutely.

CURRY: And what did she wear in the inaugural ball?

Ms. LEVY: Well, she wore an ivory chiffon sheath that was designed for her by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Goodman . And what's interesting is that even though she was sophisticated and worldly and youthful, she actually wanted something relatively understated for the inauguration because she wanted not to upstage her husband. And at the last moment she made a decision to swap out a fur stole that she had been planning to wear for something that was a little bit simpler.

CURRY: Mm-hmm. And maybe that's one -- a smart idea for first ladies, because if you don't do something that's simple, if you don't do something that perhaps is not too much of a risk, it can get you into trouble. And see, that's the thing, you know, you're setting a trend, but you could also take a risk. Rosalynn Carter , for example.

Ms. LEVY: Absolutely. Now, this turned out to be an incredibly controversial dress , and it's because, Ann , she did something very unorthodox, and that's that she recycled. She wore the same dress , believe it or not , that she had worn to Jimmy Carter 's gubernatorial inauguration years earlier.

CURRY: Well, in these economic times , maybe that's a good idea. But...

Ms. LEVY: Well, she -- yes, you would think, right? They were facing a recession, and you'd think that people would have applauded her frugality. But actually she was roundly criticized for it, which I always thought was a little bit unfair. But I guess the message there is that people expect a certain level of glamour from their first lady.

CURRY: OK, that's putting a lot of pressure on Michelle , if she might be watching right now. What about the Reagans ? Because I would seem to be -- coming from Hollywood .

Ms. LEVY: Yeah.

CURRY: They brought a lot of that.

Ms. LEVY: Absolutely. And Nancy Reagan was clearly not going to be Rosalynn Carter here. She wore a $10,000 James Galanos gown, and it was ivory, it had gold detailing. And another interesting thing that you can see about it is that you can actually see her shoulders. This is bare, and that was unusual for a first lady at that time. But I think we might see some of that from Michelle Obama .

CURRY: And we know that she's got fantastic shoulders, Michelle Obama .

Ms. LEVY: She certainly does.

CURRY: So let's look at what she's done so far and what is likely to happen in terms of her position being first lady over the next at least four years.

Ms. LEVY: Right. Well, it's interesting, nobody knows what she's going to wear on Tuesday. It is a very closely guarded secret, and her team is not going to release that information until Tuesday.

CURRY: Is that a surprise, though? We don't expect to hear, do we?

Ms. LEVY: Well, sometimes you hear a little bit in advance.

CURRY: Oh.

Ms. LEVY: And every designer, of course, wanted to dress her. But there's a lot of speculation. Here's a little bit of what we know for sure. Obviously, it'll be an American based designer. No question about that, it has to be. Secondly, we are in a recession. I think although she will look fashionable, she's probably not going to go completely over the top with the bling. You know, you're not going to see a lot of fur, you're not going to see head-to-toe beading. You know, she has a very simple, classic style. Some of the dresses that you're seeing here on screen are designed by Maria Pinto , the one that she wore to the White House when they went just after the election. And she favors a real range of designers. So of course, there's heated speculation about who it's going to be.

CURRY: Who are -- who are -- who are some of the people in that range?

Ms. LEVY: Well, she could go with a classic American designer, someone like Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera , Michael Kors , Ralph Lauren . Those have designs -- those designers have all designed for a range of first ladies. Both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush wore Oscar de la Renta . They understand glamour and they understand what a first lady needs on that night. A second possibility is that she could go with Maria Pinto , her Chicago dressmaker who wore some -- who designed some of her most famous looks on the trail.

CURRY: In fact, that dress , I think, right there at the Democratic National Convention .

Ms. LEVY: Yes. Well, and the red one that we were looking at earlier was Maria Pinto .

CURRY: Hm.

Ms. LEVY: And Maria Pinto really understands what Michelle Obama needs in a dress and understands her sense of color. So she's a possibility for Tuesday, particularly for day. But then for evening, another possibility is that she could choose a young up-and-coming, emerging American designer. These are people that she's worn on the trail. And some of the names that we're hearing in speculation for Tuesday are people like Thakoon and Jason Wu , Narciso Rodriguez , Isabel Toledo .

CURRY: Very modern, young?

Ms. LEVY: Absolutely, and all great American stories in their own right. These are all people who came from immigrant backgrounds and they've made successes of themselves here. And by the way, for a young first lady -- she's only 45 -- to wear a young up-and-coming American designer would be a great sign of confidence in the future of the American fashion industry , which at this economic moment is probably a very good thing.

CURRY: You know, this is interesting, because you're factoring a lot of things; not just, ` Will I look good in the dress ? Will the color be good on me?' but really, `Does the fashion designer himself or herself have the kind of story that I also want to send to the world?' Interesting.

Ms. LEVY: Well, it's a statement. It's a statement about what you believe in, and Michelle Obama absolutely understands that.

CURRY: All right, Cindy Levy , thank you so much . Always a pleasure.

Ms. LEVY: Thank you. Thank you.