The White House Goes Glam

Michelle dared to bare in a strapless gown, India’s PM was fashion-forward in Lacroix-like periwinkle, and David Geffen and Katie Couric both arrived with younger men. VIEW OUR GALLERY of the White House State Dinner.

Jason Reed / Reuters

Michelle dared to bare in a strapless gown, India’s PM was fashion-forward in Lacroix-like periwinkle, and David Geffen and Katie Couric both arrived with younger men. VIEW OUR GALLERY of the White House State Dinner. Plus, Laura Bush's former chief of staff Anita McBride goes behind the scenes to share Michelle's etiquette secrets.

Hollywood glamour swept back into Washington on Tuesday night at President Obama’s first State Dinner, held in a chandelier-filled party tent on the White House lawn. Movie stars and producers turned out in force for the black-tie affair. Beautifully tanned gay couples strolled past the press line, and the first lady arrived looking camera ready—and more than a little like an Oscar statuette—in a shimmering strapless gold gown.

Click Image to View Fashions from the White House State Dinner

The party was allegedly a diplomatic event, something Michelle Obama called a “really neat dinner” at a walk-through press preview earlier in the day. But who cares about all that when there are snubs to tally (where were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and incoming World News anchor Diane Sawyer?) and curious inclusions to dissect (Tom Friedman? Really?).

“This is a big time to call in your chits,” said Washington doyenne Sally Quinn, wife of former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. Ipso facto, anyone who didn’t show Tuesday night either didn’t have enough chits to call (Rep. Eric Cantor) or so many they thought it wouldn’t matter (cable queen Oprah Winfrey, who sent a gold-bedecked Gayle King in her stead).

Anita McBride: Michelle’s Etiquette SecretsThe most anticipated moment of the evening came when a member of the White House communications team emerged around 8 p.m. to brief the press on Michelle Obama’s outfit. “It’s a gold strapless dress,” the woman said, gesturing to her décolletage. “By Naeem Khan. N-A-E-E…” Khan, an Indian-born designer who started his own label in 2003, having thus been blessed with the Mobama fashion seal of approval, must have had a pretty good night.

“Michelle Obama is not following type,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Teri Agins, who predicted the strapless gown hours in advance. “We’ve seen her wear cardigans to meet Queen Elizabeth. We’ve seen her wear walking shorts on Air Force One. We’ve seen her wear Target and the Gap and White House Black Market; she’s just all over the place. And I just kind of think: I wonder if this has now set a new tone in Washington.”

The answer, as of Tuesday night, was… not really, or at least not yet. The women came dressed in conservative gowns; the men in standard penguin suits. There were no Balmain buckles, no Alexander Wang-style cutout dresses, not even a one-shoulder number by Obama favorite Jason Wu. It was the evening’s honoree, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who arrived in the most fashion-forward garb, wearing a lovely periwinkle turban very much like the ones Christian Lacroix showed for his Fall 2009 collection. Singh and the president cut chic figures side-by-side on stage, when they kicked off the evening with a toast “to the future that beckons all of us.”

Anyone who spent Tuesday night reading a fresh copy of Going Rogue would have found no surprises (and many signs of a coming apocalypse) in the night’s program. Dinner was vegetarian, including homegrown mint leaves and lemon verbena plucked from the first lady’s backyard “kitchen garden.” David Geffen brought his handsome younger boyfriend; Katie Couric brought hers. Two Emanuel brothers came, along with lifestyle guru Deepak Chopra and welfare economist Amartya Sen. Yes, they served arugula. “White House Arugula,” according to the menu—one more confirmation that liberal elitism has been institutionalized.

Every detail, down to the biography of guest chef Marcus Samuelsson, fit with the Obamas’ governing ethos of diversity, inclusion, and organic vegetables. Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born New York restaurateur, cooked a healthy, sustainable feast: potato and eggplant salad to start, followed by red lentil soup with “fresh cheese” (one would hope), then an entrée choice of roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, chickpeas and okra or green curry prawns, caramelized salsify, smoked collard greens, and coconut aged basmati. Dessert was pumpkin pie, pear tatin, whipped cream and caramel sauce, as well as a selection of smaller treats, including cashew brittle and pecan pralines.

A typical exchange, involving a diplomat and a member of the media, went like this: “Is that a new tuxedo?” “It is a new tuxedo!” “Who made the tuxedo?” “I don’t recall.”

Absolutely nothing scandalous or dramatic happened, to the infinite chagrin of a hungry press.

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“We all wait for some fabulous gaffe, somebody losing their dress or something of that sort, which occasionally happens,” said Judith Martin, a.k.a. “Miss Manners,” a former journalist who has attended her share of State Dinners. She recalled the Johnson years, when the president and his wife “did not stint on the wine and loved to stay up all night dancing”—so late that some of the more crotchety Supreme Court justices would leave early, even though the custom is to stay as long as the first couple does.

The guests this year seemed demure and press shy—just happy to be there. A typical exchange, involving a diplomat and a member of the media, went like this:

“Is that a new tuxedo?”

“It is a new tuxedo!”

“Who made the tuxedo?”

“I don’t recall.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu arrived early, with his wife. When someone asked who she was wearing, she replied, “Bloomingdale's.”

Attorney General Eric Holder arrived with his wife, who wore a delicate pink strapless dress by Kay Unger. “I’m with Steven Spielberg, so my kids have given me a list of questions to ask,” he said before they ducked into the tent.

Spielberg was there along with both of his fellow DreamWorks SKG partners, Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, no doubt because of the troika’s joint venture with India’s Reliance ADA Group, a powerful Bollywood studio run by Anil Ambani, the sixth richest man in the world.

The guest list also included a who’s who of prominent Indian-Americans. CNN chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, came with his wife, Rebecca, who wore an ornate fuschia silk sari, an image of which the would-be surgeon general threw up on Twitpic earlier in the evening. Film director M. Night Shyamalan turned up, so did Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Then again, so did Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal—you remember him, from NBC’s 30 Rock.

After the opening toasts, guests settled down to dinner, and the press feed went dark. What was happening in there, with all those fabulous people, that the rest of America couldn’t see?

“Everybody stands around in little huddles and stares at the other famous people,” said Quinn. “The most fun part is getting invited in the first place.”

Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.