In the wake of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US, something of a controversy has arisen:
Why did First Lady Michelle Obama not wear a dress by an American designer at the state dinner on January 19th?
The New York Times has run two pieces about the red dress by the British design label Alexander McQueen that the First Lady wore. The On the Runway blog suggests that Women’s Wear Daily’s has been conducting the equivalent of a ‘witch hunt’ and is, along with Oscar de la Renta and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (C.F.D.A.), ‘trying to shame Mrs. Obama for her sin of wearing fashion by a non-American designer to the state dinner for China on Jan. 19.’ However, as the NYT points out, ‘many of [the C.F.D.A.]‘s members, including its president, Diane Von Furstenberg, manufacture a significant portion of their clothes outside the United States, mainly in Asia.’
In an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times, Kate Betts writes that the First Lady did choose to wear a dress by American designer Rachel Roy for the State of the Union address. Betts suggests that Mrs. Obama’s ‘impact on fashion’ goes beyond just wearing clothes ‘Made in America’:
…The optimism, glamour and accessibility that she communicates through her style of dressing transcends cultural borders and economic boundaries. Yes, she is sometimes an ambassador for American designers, but more important, she is an ambassador for the self-possession that defines American style.
Maybe she chose not to promote a specific American brand at the state dinner last week, but she certainly promotes a healthy sense of enjoyment and individuality in fashion. With her brio and idiosyncratic clothing choices, Mrs. Obama has rewritten the dress code for women who work. We wear cardigans now instead of always jackets, flats instead of impossibly high platform heels. We have a little fun with fashion, even to the point of being more frivolous.
And, most important, we dress for ourselves, something the first lady does so effortlessly it’s hard to imagine that there had ever been any dress code for her position. With her floral prints and hula hoops, she’s not afraid to flaunt her femininity — so why should the rest of us be?
Mrs. Obama, Betts writes, dresses for herself, rather than for others; rather than to please the tastes and demands of others. It’s an appealing point: How many times have we all put on some outfit because we thought it was ‘what we should look like,’ only to regret those stupid blister-causing heels when we had to walk several blocks and wish we had worn our favorite, comfy pair of shoes? I thought it commendable that the First Lady has been regularly choosing to wear not some fancy-schmancy Euro designer label with fancy-schmancy prices to match, but, of all things, J. Crew.
And on the other hand I’m having mixed feelings about even writing this post. I mean, why do we continue to care so much—too much—about what the First Lady is wearing? As Cathy Horyn writes in On the Runway:
Here’s my problem with Mrs. Obama: I want her to be known for something other than her fashion. I want her to be a great first lady who truly cares about the lives of Americans at the time when many need help. I want her to be far more than “prime placement” for a dress label — whatever the country of origin. She supports a number of causes, notably healthful eating habits, but these deeds are being overshadowed by what she wears. Only she can change that perception. In March 2009, The Economist ran an excellent article about our new first lady that expressed the concern that she might become better known for her fashion rather than for her opinions. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening.
Is it possible for anyone in the First Lady role to be known more for ‘her deeds’ and less for what she wears? If a woman were elected President of the US, would the same over-concern about her clothes exist?
Or maybe the fashionistas’ focus will swing to said first female President’s husband. Just to be fair, you know.
Photo by Rusty Darbonne.