Feeling Inspired by Michelle Obama’s Portrait Dress

The Obama portraits arrived at the Museum of Fine Art Houston, and on the last day of the exhibit, my daughter and I managed to catch the display. May I say, I adore these portraits. Not just for the artistic licenses, but the inspiration behind each one. But, I only want to talk about the First Lady’s dress for now.

Once I read the inspiration behind Mrs. Obama’s specially designed dress and the portraiture style of both artists, I was enthralled. Of course, anything I designate as visually stunning, starts a thought process on how to integrate that look into my own piece. I am still working it out. So, no sewn piece is available YET.

Mrs. Obama’s portrait by artist Amy Sherald
President Obama’s portrait by artist Kehinde Wiley

The designer of this Milly dress (Michelle Smith) was inspired by the quilts of Gee’s Bend and artist Piet Mondrian (whose art also inspired Yves St Laurent, back in the day. Remember the Mondrian dress from the 1960s?). Gee’s Bend, Alabama is an isolated community of descendants of slaves. The women carried on the tradition of making these quilts from whatever material they had on hand, including their clothing. I will link an article about the Gee’s Bend quilters on the National Endowment of the Arts blog in 2015.

Here’s another one posted in 2020 by Diary of a Quilter.

It’s an embarrassment that I never did research the quilts of Gee’s Bend all that much — mainly because quilting generally does not interest me. But reading the stories behind this somewhat free-wheeling style of quilting enthralled me. I call it freewheeling, but you can see in some of their work, that the traditional American quilt block design is there; for example, the fascinatingly crooked “log cabin” patch, or the “half square” (triangles).

Without disrespecting the traditions behind the Gees Bend story, I took iPencil to iPad and attempted these crude drawings to see if I could capture the essence of Mrs. Obama’s portrait dress in my own piece.

The plan is to make this top/tunic this summer — or the next? My sewing has slowed down so much, that just drawings and ideas will have to suffice on this blog.

What do you think? Can I have other suggestions on how to create the same vibes? I have plenty of good size scraps; heck, I’m willing to cut up items from my wardrobe to honor the original Gees Bend quilters. And, Piet Mondrian.

Check back in to see how I succeeded (or failed miserably) in this project. Again, suggestions and your own ideas are welcome.

Bonus Museum Stuff! While meandering around MFAH, we found some exquisite jewelry exhibit. Take a look at this “scarf” necklace, circa 1948 by jeweler Jean Schlumberger, reminiscent of a twisted bandana.


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