Sherald paints Obama wearing a cotton dress by Michelle Smith, an American clothing designer. At the unveiling, Sherald explained that the pattern on the dress reminds her of traditional quilts made in the American South. The dress may be a symbolic reference to Obama’s ancestors, who were enslaved Africans.
The dress dominates the work, filling most of the composition. Fans say that the triangular-shaped dress is like an arrow pointing to Obama’s face. The first lady appears almost as a mountain, a symbol of strength. Critics argue that the bold geometric pattern actually draws attention away. They say that the subject’s face appears to be too small for her body. They also argue that the dress is the true subject of the painting, not the first lady.