Oscar de la Renta Spoke, Michelle Obama Listened

Michelle Obama

Photo: Getty Images

From left: Michelle Obama in Isaac Mizrahi at the 2010 State of the Union, in Rachel Roy at the 2011 State of the Union, and last week in Alexander McQueen at the White House State Dinner.

After being criticized for wearing a British designer at the White House State Dinner last week—a bold red Alexander McQueen gown—Michelle Obama chose an understated, silver silk shift dress by Indian-American designer Rachel Roy for the 2011 State of the Union. She accessorized with a stack of Lucite bangles and a black-and-white ribbon symbolizing the victims of the tragic shooting in Arizona.

Should the first lady have worn the American designer last night? Yes—it was a formal State affair, and short of wrapping a flag around her, it’s important to show support for an American industry. Though some will argue that the woman can wear what she pleases (and she can, just not to State events) the dress decision of Mrs. Obama goes beyond mere sartorial leanings. There’s a political message behind what she wears, whether she likes it or not.

The hubbub kicked off the day after the State Dinner, when Oscar de la Renta questioned the first lady’s choice of gown in an interview with WWD: “My understanding,” the designer told the paper, “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?”

An uproar (faint, but still provoking) ensued, with some blogs implying the venerable designer was being unfair, criticizing Mrs. Obama on her wardrobe because perhaps he felt slighted; she has yet to wear any of his designs. And her dress pleased many in fashion circles, including the Daily Beast’s Robin Givhan, who called the vibrant red, beautifully crafted McQueen an “optimistic celebration of all that fashion can be.”

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.”

A fashion catfight if there ever was one.  But de la Renta clarified his stance, as WWD’s Bridget Foley noted.

Do you think Kate Middleton is going to be married in Marc Jacobs? Or you’d see Carla Bruni dressing in American clothes? This is a big industry in this country. Mrs. Obama does look great. She should take that and do something. She could do a great good for our industry. We need to create jobs here, create jobs on Seventh Avenue, too.”

And to this we concede that yes, the man has a point. When was the last time we saw Carla Bruni in an American designer? A bit of a head-scratcher isn’t it?

But no first lady in recent history has done more for the American fashion scene than Mrs. Obama. She routinely wears younger, under-the-radar designers, helping catapult them to household-name status. (Jason Wu: check. Thakoon: check. Naeem Khan—you get the idea.) There’s a reason she’s compared to Jackie Kennedy; there’s an innate style utilized to help designers.

However, she did make a misstep last week. Politically, an American designer should have been represented, much like at previous State Dinners and all the State of the Unions. This is the first time, in fact, that Mrs. Obama has worn an international label to an official function of this caliber.

Michelle Obama's role that night was not solely to promote fashion, but to promote American goods in general. The fashion role fell to Vogue editor Anna Wintour (who wore Chanel) and designer Vera Wang, both on hand at the dinner. And though Mrs. Obama looked phenomenal in that red Alexander McQueen gown, she isn’t a simple celebrity; she’s the first lady, bearing certain responsibilities.

If last night’s dress choice said anything, it was that Mrs. Obama is more than willing to “buy” American and let others be in the spotlight. It was a good choice, though understated.

We can’t wait to see what (and who) she wears next.