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After former first lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait was unveiled Feb. 12 at the Smithsonian, many people pointed out that the face in the painting looked nothing like Obama herself.
But Obama’s face isn’t the only unique part of the painting. Rather, it’s the dress she wore in the portrait that may have sent a hidden political message.
The woman who designed the former first lady’s dress, Michelle Smith, is an outspoken supporter of liberal causes like LGBT equality and Planned Parenthood, in addition to being a vocal critic of President Donald Trump.
Smith, who co-owns the design company “Milly,” told The Washington Post that the dress Obama wore in the portrait was based on a similar design from her spring 2017 collection.
At that time, just months after Trump was inaugurated, Smith’s inspiration came from a “desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality,” she said.
She highlighted the emphasis on different types of laces and ties in that collection — elements that were supposed to hearken a “feeling of being held back … that we’re not quite there yet.”
Meanwhile, the dress Obama wore was only altered slightly from a design worn by a model on the runway, Smith said, the major difference being that Obama’s dress is less “discreet” than the runway version, which was open in the back, according to The Post.
“People have been describing the dress as couture, but the fabric is a stretch cotton poplin,” Smith said. It may look “like couture but it’s made out of something spartan,” she added.
The political statement Obama may have been trying to make was not lost on outlets like Politico Magazine, which pointed out that Smith, unlike many other designers, is not afraid to make her views about the current administration known.
After unveiling campaigns in the spring and fall of 2017 that were geared toward the LGBT community, she noted she wanted to reach out to those people following Trump’s election.
“It felt right to reach out to the LGBT community who is feeling threatened right now under Trump and the administration,” Smith told The Hollywood Reporter.
Many of the photos she has used to advertise her designs have been unmistakable statements of support for LGBT rights.
She has released photos of women kissing each other, and in 2018, she used gender fluid model Elliott Sailors to promote her work.
In November 2017, moreover, she ranted to Teen Vogue that under Trump, the rights she “had sadly taken for granted” now felt “threatened.” Smith had hoped and assumed the U.S. would have its “first female president,” but she was mistaken.
“What I had felt to be an extraordinary triumph for equality — the election of an African-American president — was my children’s normal. Gay marriage and LGBTQ equality was their normal,” she said.
“Their generation, I had often thought, is where the real shift in equality and human rights will take place. I had easily assumed their next ultimate role model would be a female president. I was wrong. … All the rights I had sadly taken for granted . . . now felt threatened. I had to do something.”
In addition to her LGBT activism, Smith is a supporter of Planned Parenthood, and in 2017, she even created a T-shirt to commemorate the abortion provider’s 100th anniversary. All the profits from the shirt were donated to the organization.
And for the former first lady, it’s hardly the first time she has worn clothes designed by Smith’s company. Perhaps most notably, Obama wore a Milly-designed top when she posed for her final White House photographs.
Smith, moreover, said she was thrilled Obama wore her dress for the official portrait.
“This is the biggest honor as a designer — as an American!” she told ABC News.
Moreover, she said the dress was simple, not high-fashion.
“It is a people’s fabric. The dress has pockets. It is easy and comfortable,” she said.
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