Michelle Obama’s presidential portrait dress has a political backstory

The patchwork dress has roots in Alabama’s black community.

February 13, 2018

The unveiling of the Obama portraits at the National Gallery was always going to be a huge moment, and it sure as hell didn’t disappoint.


Not only were Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald the first black artists to be commissioned by the National Gallery for a presidential portrait, but Michelle Obama was immortalized by Baltimore-based Sherald in a floor-length patchwork, poplin gown inspired by designer Michelle Smith’s spring 2017 Milly collection. It’s a nod to the women of Gee’s Bend, an isolated Black community in late nineteenth century Alabama, where the women created abstract and asymmetrical quilt designs that defied the traditional geometric palette of American quilts.

Smith, a longtime favorite of Obama, was inspired by movements that the former first lady championed herself: human rights, racial equality, and LGBT justice. Her collection was heavy on knots and ties which Smith, in a statement to The Washington Post, said were meant to evoke a “feeling of being held back … that we’re not quite there yet.”

“I dressed Mrs. Obama on several occasions while she was in office, and am so grateful to create something that she will forever be remembered in by future generations,” said the designer to the Huffington Post. “The modern silhouette of the dress perfectly reflects her forward-thinking sensibility, and I’m thrilled that I get to be a little part of what was such a ground-breaking and positive presidency.”

The gown also boasted pockets, a feature a sensible Capricorn like Obama would probably find useful.

Michelle Obama’s presidential portrait dress has a political backstory