Michelle Obama didn’t choose a Chinese designer for the White House state dinner with President Hu Jintao, but her Alexander McQueen gown paid direct homage to China with its red color. Above all, The Daily Beast’s Robin Givhan says, the first lady’s fashion message struck a blow for creativity. Plus, Leslie H. Gelb on the summit stalemate.
On the occasion of the Obama administration’s third state dinner—when every morsel of food, every floral centerpiece, every subtle gesture is dissected for meaning—the American first lady wore an Alexander McQueen evening gown that offered rich fodder for examining the complex relationship between the designer fashion industry, the rising prominence of China, and the position that eclectic style can occupy in a world of protocol and tradition.
The red petal print, silk organza gown wasn’t so much an act of diplomacy as a broad statement about the new realities of the fashion industry. In choosing a dress from Alexander McQueen, Mrs. Obama championed the cause of artisan design, the legacy of bespoke tailoring, and the staggering creativity that can be nurtured in the frock trade when it is at its best. The sleeveless dress, with its asymmetrical neckline, was created by a house that represents the designer imagination at its most indulgent and devilish. And in wearing the gown to honor China, a country that many view with disdain for its abundance of cheap labor, counterfeit products, and poor labor practices, Mrs. Obama seemed to be recognizing the country’s inevitable place in the fashion cycle and giving it its due. Indeed, Chinese consumers represent a vast new marketplace for designer companies, and the production quality of its factories continues to improve. In short, Mrs. Obama’s choice was an optimistic celebration of all that fashion can be and it seemed to suggest that China was welcome to be a part of that vision.
The dress also served as a razzle-dazzle fashion moment. An American first lady was embracing a brand known for its willingness to push boundaries, to agitate, and even to offend. The house, founded in 1992 by Lee Alexander McQueen, has found its inspiration in everything from medieval armor to witch-hunts. (Oh, how far the East Wing has come from the sedate days of Oleg Cassini and Arnold Scaasi!) Lee McQueen could see beauty in the morose and even the morbid. Even though his great talent was rooted in the strict tailoring expertise he gained as an apprentice on Savile Row, there was never anything subtle or reserved about the brand. He was a showman who indulged in ostentation and flamboyance. His ready-to-wear was often created with the lavish attention to detail and the handcrafted quality normally reserved for couture.
When McQueen committed suicide last year at 40, the creative reins of the company were handed to his longtime assistant Sarah Burton. This dress was pulled from Burton’s recently presented resort collection for the house. It was originally shown with short puffy sleeves; the version Mrs. Obama wore was cut to reveal her famously sculpted arms.
After McQueen died, many fashion observers questioned whether the house would, or even could, continue without its founder, who had injected so much of his personality, and his anguish, into each collection. But the brand’s owner, Gucci Group, moved forward without missing a season and Burton seems to have been able to channel the essence of the label, although without its often deeply dark moods. For an international fashion industry that has lost one of its most innovative designers, the first lady’s decision to support the house by wearing one of its gowns on such an auspicious occasion is an extraordinary expression of support for a kind of creativity that is neither safe nor tidy.
The choice is also intriguing because McQueen, who was British, has no connections—at least no obvious ones—to China. Before the dress debuted, it seemed more likely that Mrs. Obama might have chosen something by Jason Wu, the Taiwanese-born designer of her inaugural gown, or by Vera Wang, who is of Chinese descent and who was a guest at the dinner. There’s also any number of young designers in New York who have familial connections to China who could have been tapped for the honor. Instead, only the color of the dress paid direct homage to China; red symbolizes good luck and happiness. And nothing, frankly, was overtly American.
This dress, less body conscious and richly adorned than Mrs. Obama’s previous state dinner gowns by Naeem Khan and Peter Soronen, seemed to be more of a celebration of the global fashion industry rather than a more narrowly focused desire to spotlight the creativity of China or any American designers who can claim a familial connection to it.
In Mrs. Obama’s considered fashion message, her full-skirted dress, from a British design house worn in celebration of a Chinese president, struck a blow for creativity. In grand and sweeping terms, one could argue that it symbolized the ability of a designer’s imagination to cross borders, connect different cultures, and ultimately express itself in a singular moment of beauty.
Put more simply, Mrs. Obama made a surprising fashion choice, but ultimately, it seemed like the right one.
Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post, where she covered the news, trends, and business of the international fashion industry and wrote a weekly style column. She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady . In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, DC.