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, 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 Michelle 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 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.
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 Michelle Obama, a fashion icon with far more expensive tastes than Laura 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, Michelle Obama looks for discounts.
And, for 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 Obama considerable money, although the White House refused to say how often the first lady wears donated clothes. 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 Obama's two inaugural gowns made by Jason Wu, a lesser-known designer before Obama turned him into a star in the fashion firmament. Wu declined to discuss how he works with the first lady.
Obama and Wu both were there when the first inaugural gown was presented to the Smithsonian in 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.
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 Bush paid for all her clothes, including her two inaugural gowns.
McBride credits the Obama White House with finding a cost-saving way to "keep Mrs. Obama in all those incredible clothes."
There are questions about how much Obama pays for those clothes she purchases. In a 2011 Washington Post story about her personal assistant, Meredith Koop, the first lady's office said Koop acted on Obama's behalf "in arranging for purchases, including considering the best offered price and buying on discount if discounts are available."
Several designers who have provided clothes for Obama declined to discuss their arrangements. But given the prestige that comes with dressing a first lady, it's widely thought that designers are eager to cut her 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."