We've watched two high-profile ceremonies this summer—Michael Jackson's in Los Angeles and Ted Kennedy's in Boston, and beyond the sadness of the occasion the thing that struck me about both was how dignified the families looked in their sorrow. Sober, elegant clothes that hit exactly the right note. The Jacksons were, if rumor is correct, coordinated by Donetella Versace at Janet's request. The brothers' single jeweled gloves, everyone's dark glasses would have loked out of place in Boston, but seemed somehow correct in Los Angeles—especially considering the guest of honor. The end result: polish, even in grief.
Sadly, the Kennedys have had years of practice dressing for and attending funerals, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they did so well. "That's one thing you can say about us Catholics—we give good funeral," an Irish Catholic friend told me. "Ritual is important to us."
What we can do when we attend a funeral or memorial service, then, is make sure the focus remains on the person being honored.
Michelle Obama may have missed the mark a bit this afternoon. Her huge "Look-At-Me" bow is the height of fashion, and it would have been fabulous at a cocktail party or a happy reception. Wearing it to the Senator's funeral mass, rich in tradition and ceremony, just made this smart, elegant woman look like she's trying too hard. And she doesn't have to. It's pretty ironic when LaToya Jackson ends up looking more conservative at a funeral than the First Lady did today.
Being First Lady, looking like a First Lady, is a work in progress. Each woman who has the job leaves her own mark on it. Michelle Obama will undoubtedly leave her mark on the programs she'll champion, especially those that attempt to level the woefully uneven playing field that still exists. And while what Mrs. Obama wears is less important than who she is, what she wears can also distract from who she is, especially when what she wears distracts from attention that should properly be focused on a serious occasion.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).