First lady's fashions raise question: Who pays?

First ladies are expected to dress well, but there is no clothing allowance or salary
Associated Press
Jun 3, 2014


Michelle Obama's fashionable clothing has become something of a given in her five-plus years as first lady. Yet her wardrobe still is the subject of endless public fascination and one long-simmering question: Who pays for those incredible outfits?

It's no small matter. Her high-low fashion choices mix everyday, off-the-rack fare with custom creations from top designers whose gowns can run into five figures.

In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama has turned heads with a forest-green Naeem Khan dress at the opening of a new costume gallery at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. She shimmered in a silver Marchesa gown at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. And her flowered shirtdress for a Mother's Day tea at the White House (recycled from an earlier event) hit the just right note for an audience of military moms.

It takes money to pull that off, month after month. Those three dresses by themselves could add up to more than $15,000 retail, not to mention accessories such as shoes and jewelry.

Is it the taxpayers who foot the bill? No. (Despite what critics say.)

Is it Mrs. Obama? Usually, but not always.

Does she pay full price? Not likely.

Does she ever borrow gowns from designers? No.

The financing of the first lady's wardrobe is something that the Obama White House is loath to discuss. It's a subject that has bedeviled presidents and their wives for centuries. First ladies are expected to dress well, but the job doesn't come with a clothing allowance or a salary.

Mary Todd Lincoln racked up tens of thousands of dollars in clothing bills and considered selling manure from the White House grounds to pay them off, according to the National First Ladies' Library. Jacqueline Kennedy's father-in-law stepped in to finance her Oleg Cassini wardrobe to keep clothes from becoming a political liability for President John Kennedy. Nancy Reagan got grief for borrowing designer gowns and not always returning them or reporting them as gifts.

Laura Bush, in her memoir, said she was "amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy" as first lady.

How does Mrs. Obama, a fashion icon with far more expensive tastes than Mrs. Bush, swing it?

For starters, the Obamas reported adjusted income of $481,000 last year, and assets worth $1.8 million to $7 million.

And like most people, Mrs. Obama (mostly her personal aide, really) looks for discounts.

And, for really big events, the first lady has an option not available to every fashionista.

Here's how Joanna Rosholm, press secretary to the first lady, explains it:

"Mrs. Obama pays for her clothing. For official events of public or historic significance, such as a state visit, the first lady's clothes may be given as a gift by a designer and accepted on behalf of the U.S. government. They are then stored by the National Archives."

That saves Mrs. Obama considerable money, although the White House refused to say how often the first lady wears donated clothes and the National Archives declined to say how many such items it has in storage. The White House did say that the first lady doesn't borrow any clothing and, for the most part, buys her own clothes.

The clothing donated by designers includes Mrs. Obama's two inaugural gowns made by Jason Wu, a lesser-known designer before Mrs. Obama turned him into a star in the fashion firmament. Wu declined to discuss how he works with the first lady.

Mrs. Obama and Wu both were there when the first inaugural gown was presented to the Smithsonian in March 2010. The first lady said in her remarks: "The dress I donated today, made by Jason Wu, is a masterpiece." But the Smithsonian lists the gown as a "gift of Jason Wu in honor of first lady" Michelle Obama, making clear it came from him. The first lady's office had no comment on that.

Two other examples of gowns worn by the first lady that were donated by designers: the blue Carolina Herrera gown that Mrs. Obama wore to February 's state dinner for French President Francois Hollande and the gold beaded Naeem Khan gown that Mrs. Obama wore to the 2012 governors ball, now on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Herrera and Khan declined comment.

The first lady's office had no comment on whether the couture gowns worn by Mrs. Obama for her six other White House state dinners also were donated. Nor would it say how many gowns have been donated for the array of other big events for which the first lady is expected to appear in couture finery, such as the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies, governors' dinners and White House correspondents' dinners.

Wearing donated gowns represents a change in practice from the Bush administration.

Anita McBride, chief of staff to Laura Bush during her time as first lady, said Mrs. Bush paid for all her clothes, including her two inaugural gowns: a red crystal-embroidered gown by Texan Michael Faircloth and a silver and blue V-neck creation of Oscar de la Renta.

McBride credits the Obama White House with finding a cost-saving way to "keep Mrs. Obama in all those incredible clothes and to have the use of them not once but multiple times."

The costs of a custom couture gown can be phenomenal, particularly if it is highly embellished with something like beading.

New Yorker Sarah Phillips, who designed Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1993 inaugural gown, puts the full cost of that violet beaded lace sheath in the range of $50,000, with the Presidential Inaugural Committee paying $10,000 and Phillips and the workshop covering the bulk of the costs. Phillips isn't sure whether Clinton herself paid anything toward the dress, but the Smithsonian's website describes the gown as a "gift of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Presidential Inaugural Committee."

Lawyers who served in the Obama and Bush White Houses describe taking care in working with the first lady's office to ensure that arrangements with designers didn't run afoul of ethics rules designed to guard against conflicts of interest and questionable quid pro quos.

Beyond the unknowns about how often Mrs. Obama's clothes are donated, there are questions about how much she pays for those she purchases.

In a 2011 Washington Post story about Mrs. Obama's personal assistant, Meredith Koop, the first lady's office said Koop acted on Mrs. Obama's behalf "in arranging for purchases, including considering the best offered price and buying on discount if discounts are available."

That's still true today, the first lady's office says, without elaborating.

Several designers who have provided clothes for the first lady declined to discuss their arrangements. But given the prestige that comes with dressing Mrs. Obama, it's widely thought that designers are eager to cut the first lady a break. Former White House lawyers said any discounts provided to the first lady would have to be in line with what designers offer other top customers to avoid being considered gifts.

Paco Underhill, author of "What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping," said the markups on designer clothes are "astronomical" — and the discounts can be steep as well.

"Some of the routine discounts that people ask for are 40 percent off," he said. "Whether they get it is subject to somebody's discretion."

First ladies have tried all sorts of tactics to hold down their clothing costs, including keeping some dresses in rotation.

Mrs. Obama wore the same dress to this year's Mother's Day tea that she'd worn to lunch with Katy Perry in October 2012. She often switches around separates, belts and other accessories to give clothes in her wardrobe a fresh look.

Recycling carries its own risks.

Mrs. Bush, in her memoir, tells of arriving at a TV studio and noticing a picture on the wall that showed she'd worn the same suit to her last interview there.

"Quickly, I exchanged tops with my press secretary, so that it would seem as if I had more wardrobe variety," she recalled.



Let the haters begin...........................


It's really taking longer than I thought it would.


Wait for it..... wait for it.


All First Ladies do this, I think they should have a clothing allowance so it isn't abused.


Re: "the first lady's clothes may be given as a gift by a designer,"

Then the designer can use her wearing his/her outfit for marketing purposes.

Show and sell.

No great mental leap there.


????????? Just felt like typing huh?


Re: "?????????"

Take your own advice:

“You shouldn't waste your free speech on stupid comments!”

- deertracker, 5/28/14


It is not just the gowns. The fact that the King and Queen of America talk out of both sides of their mouths. First, they are all for the poor people, but take far too many vacations that costs millions of dollars for the tax payor. The trip to Africa, China and his make believe home state of Hawaii.
Then to use a seperate plane just to bring the dog along on the vacations!!!
OBAMA stands for " One Big A-- Mistake America! Even Hillary in 2016 would be a better selection.


It's amusing to hear Republicans complain about Obama, considering the most recent Republican president will certainly go down in history as one of the worst of all time. We are STILL digging out of the hole Bush put us into.


STFU you blithering idiot. Your POTUS has just secured GOP control over Congress.

thinkagain's picture

“Those three dresses by themselves could add up to more than $15,000 retail”

Of course her outfits are pricey, just think of all the extra material needed to cover that giant caboose.



Darwin's choice

" You can put lipstick on a pig...."



Odd. We Democrats think Obama is a huge improvement over the last guy. Certainly he has accomplished a heck of lot more than Bush could have ever hoped to...

Darwin's choice

A complete failure on your part. How else would you morons, incapable of an original thought without guidance from the trolls under another bridge,exist? obama has not accomplished anything except diversion.

obama/failing always!

The Big Dog's back

" You can put lipstick on a pig...."
And you get darwin's choice.

Darwin's choice

oooooohhh! Take me to the hospital burn unit....!!! Good one big dog!


They get their money, not only from taxpayers, but from gifts and payments for appearances. And book writing. The guy makes $400,000 a year on salary alone, by all means he can afford that kind of stuff. He gets everything for free for the most part.

The Big Dog's back

I bet if we had President Right Wingnut in office this wouldn't be an issue.


You got that right! No pun intended.


True. Bush was on vacation far more than Obama was, but you never hear anyone on the Right mention that...

Darwin's choice

And still accomplished 10 times more than obumbles, the muslim.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

Of all the actual threats, failings, claims, issues of security, economics, suffering, poverty, and environmental concerns and THIS is the best-researched hard questioned investigative article about the Presidency specifically or government at large?


Tsk Tsk


Our Muslim President just released five of his buddies, brought home a Muslim deserter, allowed his Muslim parents into the White House, and we're worried about who's paying for clothes?


Only the craziest of the rightwingnuts thinks that Obama is Muslim. He brought home an American soldier.

Darwin's choice

Wrong troll!!!! This blatant attempt to deflect from his massive failures, VA-IRS-obamacare etc.,is going to blowup in his face yet again!




Nancy Reagan & the new china service too? Megan Marshack? It never stops!

Dr. Information

Whats amazing is how the liberal media ripped on Anne Romney for her 600 dollar top, yet didn't say a word about Michelle's 2000 dollar outfit on one of her many morning show appearances.


not to mention what they did to Sarah Palin. hmmmm


I am not concerned with her clothing as much as I am her traveling.....with guests....many guests.

Darwin's choice

She's making the Beverly Hillbillys look smarter every day.....


Compared to the completely vacuous Laura Bush, Michelle comes off as a Rhodes Scholar.

Darwin's choice

When you have nothing, revert to throwback! Straight from the democrat "save the "failure" obama at all costs playbook"

Pathetic troll!




Darwin's choice

How do you type with both of your hands wrapped so tightly around coasterfan with your man hug? Cling-on, though!

2cents's picture

Such small minds today:

"Lawyers who served in the Obama and Bush White Houses describe taking care in working with the first lady's office to ensure that arrangements with designers didn't run afoul of ethics rules designed to guard against conflicts of interest and questionable quid pro quos."

Let them all have the stupid wardrobe because the cost of the lawyers to check every little thing will cost hundreds of thousands $$$ we tax payers pay! A good day to think outside the box kids!