China’s first lady beats out Michelle Obama for best-dressed list, to cheers on the Chinese Web

August 2, 2013

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, wave to a reception committee after being welcomed by Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jose Meade upon their arrival at Mexico City's airport in June. (Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING -- When it comes to the love-hate, frenemy-like U.S.-China relationship, there’s been no shortage of competition. You have cyberwars, currency wars, intellectual property wars and, most recently, the tug-of-war over a certain asylum-seeking fugitive leaker.

Now, add to all that a rivalry over who has the best-dressed first lady -- a competition in which China was surprisingly anointed the winner this week by Vanity Fair.

For the second consecutive year, Michelle Obama did not make the cut of the magazine’s list of “International Best-Dressed.” But China’s new first lady did. Peng Liyuan “sails onto the list,” as Vanity Fair put it in a photo gallery highlighting Peng’s eye for trendy-yet-stately attire.

The unexpected honor had some Chinese bloggers crowing.

“Peng Liyuan Upends Michelle Obama,” said one Chinese luxury mag’s headline.

“She is the mother of the country,” wrote one unnamed Chinese blogger registered in Hebei province. “Finally, China has a first lady who gets people thumbs-up around the world.”

Obama’s absence -- seen by some in America’s fashion orbits as a grave misjudgment -- drew similarly passionate responses. “We can think of more than a few snubs ... but the biggest would probably have to be Michelle Obama, who was snubbed last year as well,” an author at the New York-based Fashionista blog wrote. “Especially when you consider some of the men and women who made the list over her, like Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan.”

“Conspicuously missing,” the Daily Beast fashion blog declared, calling Obama “arguably the best-dressed American woman in the public eye.”

Peng’s emergence in high-visibility public trips abroad and events at home has drawn considerable attention this year, both in China and worldwide, breaking the decades-long tendency for top Chinese leaders’ wives to remain hidden from public view.

Peng has also played a role in the public relations push by her husband, President Xi Jinping, who is working to cultivate a man-of-the-people image and to blunt growing anger and disillusionment with China’s ruling authoritarian Communist Party. But she's also generated some controversy. A photo, heavily censored within China, appears to show her serenading troops in Tiananmen Square shortly after the 1989 crackdown in which large numbers of student protesters were killed.

The iron hand of Chinese censors was also evident Friday as government minders heavily censored comments about Peng’s latest fashion accolades. On one popular Chinese Web portal, 163.com, a posting on Peng’s Vanity Fair honor showed it had drawn 3,000 comments, but by Friday afternoon only 13 were visible. On Sina.com, 1,700 users initially commented, but only 156 posts were left standing.

One comment that escaped censors struck a philosophical tone about Peng’s image campaign, saying: “You’re winning credit for China. But it’s more important to do substantive things for the poor in China.”

Peng is actually the second first lady in Chinese history to make Vanity Fair's best-dressed list. The first, 70 years ago, was Soong May-ling, the wife of China’s Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek, who later fled with her husband to Taiwan after his defeat at the hands of the Communist Party.

Like Michelle Obama, Peng’s fashion choices have sparked shopping runs on items she’s worn or plugged. A Chinese skin-care product she gave as a gift in Tanzania caused a spike in sales of the product's brand. And a custom-made bag and coat she wore on a trip to Russia this winter spawned mass purchases of copycat versions on China’s equivalent of eBay. Her entry on Vanity Fair's best-dressed list actually mentions this, citing the brand, Exception de Mixmind – a fashion label based in China.

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