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First lady's fabulous clothes: Who pays the bills?

Monday - 6/2/2014, 3:06am  ET

FILE - This two-picture combo of file photos shows a model walking the runway during the Marchesa Fall 2013 fashion show at Fashion Week in New York, Feb. 13, 2013, left, and first lady Michelle Obama waving as she arrives at the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) Dinner in Washington, May 2, 2014. First lady Michelle Obama in a Marchesa gown at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, her gown was a custom version of a dress from the Marchesa Fall 2013 collection shown on the runway. (AP Photo/File)

NANCY BENAC
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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 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.

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