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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 01/25/2011

State dinner dress flap: Does Michelle Obama have an obligation to wear American designers?

By The Reliable Source

Michelle, wearing an Alexander McQueen, and Barack Obama arrive to greet Chinese President Hu Jintao on the North Portico of the White House, 2011. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Well, there goes Oscar de la Renta's chances of dressing Michelle Obama.

The elegant fashion designer has reignited a 50-year-old debate by criticizing the first lady for wearing a gown by a British designer to Wednesday's state dinner. "My understanding," de la Renta told Women's Wear Daily, "is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade -- American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why do you wear European clothes?"

The red ball gown, created by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, was a sartorial hit and, by all accounts, Obama looked spectacular. But it was a surprising choice, considering two Chinese American fashion designers were obvious possibilities: Vera Wang, a guest at the dinner, and Jason Wu, who created Obama's inaugural gown.

So the question persists: Does the first lady have an obligation to showcase American designers?


First lady Laura Bush with designer Oscar de la Renta standing next to a de la Renta dress. (AP Photo/Dean Cox)

Jackie Kennedy thought so. The chic first lady adored French fashion -- especially clothes by Hubert de Givenchy -- but gave it up when she moved into the White House. She named a French American couturier, Oleg Cassini, to create her entire wardrobe, which combined French style with an American pedigree.

Obama's McQueen gown immediately created a buzz. Bob Colacello of Vanity Fair weighed in: "I think it was absolutely wrong for her to wear something by a foreign designer." Kate Betts, author of "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style," told the Associated Press that "you expect an American or an American-based designer for an occasion like this." But plenty of other fashionistas had Obama's back, arguing that she wears American designers all the time.

De la Renta, of course, is an old hand when it comes to first-lady fashion: He's been dressing them for decades, notably Hillary Rodham Clinton's second inaugural gown and a red lace jacket and suit that Laura Bush (and three other women) wore to the Kennedy Center Honors. But nothing yet for Obama.


President and Mrs. Clinton, wearing a de la Renta dress, dance during the New York Inaugural Ball, 1997. (AP/Doug Mills)

The designer told WWD his criticism wasn't personal: "I'm not talking about my clothes, my business. I'm old, and I don't need it. But there are a lot of young people, very talented people here who do." He made similar comments in 2009 when the first lady sported J. Crew in London. "American fashion right now is struggling. . .  there are a lot of great designers out there. I think it's wrong to go in one direction only."

Then again, fashion insiders couldn't help but notice that de la Renta sent a red printed ball gown -- almost identical to McQueen's dress -- down the runway in his Fall 2010 collection. Sour grapes?

A spokesman for the designer didn't get back to us; the White House had no comment.


By The Reliable Source  | January 25, 2011; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  44: Obama's Washington, First Family, White House State Dinner  
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Comments

Can we worry about something that really matters? Seriously, I don't understand the issue here. Does FLOTUS really drive couture dress sales in North America? Do women in Peoria and Sioux Falls and Biloxi base their decisions on what to wear each day on Michelle Obama's clothing choices?

If it looks good on you and you like the color, what else is there?

Posted by: AlligatorArms | January 25, 2011 12:45 AM | Report abuse

I agree with AlligatorArms. Mrs. Obama should be free to wear whatever she wants. If the media didn't get involved, no one would even know who she was wearing.

Posted by: mbrumble | January 25, 2011 8:37 AM | Report abuse

I agree with AlligatorArms. Mrs. Obama should be free to wear whatever she wants. If the media didn't get involved, no one would even know who she was wearing.

Posted by: mbrumble | January 25, 2011 8:39 AM | Report abuse

What's the trouble? Mrs. Obama has been criticized for wearing a RED gown (represents commies!), and now, for choosing a gown designed by a foreigner (English!). I guess people really need to bitch about something. Mrs. Obama looked stunning. Lighten up, people.

Posted by: annelouisebg | January 25, 2011 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Jason Wu is Taiwanese-Canadian. He does run his business out of Manhattan though.

Posted by: laurakimconnell | January 25, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

The McQueen gown is spectacular and I love it but I would have preferred if she had chosen to wear one from a Chinese-American designer instead, perhaps one by state dinner guest, Vera Wang.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | January 25, 2011 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Government is hyper-sensitive about how it spends its money and what it all looks like.

Can we please stop the insanity? All of us? Maybe it will trickle down to state and municipal levels, and we can just hire/use/employ/contract with the *right* entity, rather than the politically advantageous entity.

Posted by: cfow1 | January 26, 2011 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Oh, good lord. What a tempest in a teapot.

It was a spectacular dress and perfect for the occasion: The color, the hint of Chinese calligraphy in the digital print, the nod to grand ballgowns, the edgy asymmetry with the "fallen shoulder." Etc.

(also: received very positively in China, which is a bonus.)

I follow fashion a bit and I can't think of any American designers who would've made the dramatic equivalent of this dress.

Vera Wang would've made a nice dress & I think Michelle would look good in much of her stuff. But. This McQueen dress style is definetly not something Vera would've made.

Posted by: dadada | January 26, 2011 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Oh, good lord. What a tempest in a teapot.

It was a spectacular dress and perfect for the occasion: The color, the hint of Chinese calligraphy in the digital print, the nod to grand ballgowns, the edgy asymmetry with the "fallen shoulder." Etc.

(also: received very positively in China, which is a bonus.)

I follow fashion a bit and I can't think of any American designers who would've made the dramatic equivalent of this dress.

Vera Wang would've made a nice dress & I think Michelle would look good in much of her stuff. But. This McQueen dress style is definetly not something Vera would've made.

Posted by: dadada | January 26, 2011 4:34 PM | Report abuse

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