Known for an aesthetic that combines elegance with ease, Herrera, 75, was born in Venezuela and became a naturalized American citizen in 2009. The designer’s work appears regularly on the red carpet on actresses such as Renée Zellweger, and the first lady has worn Herrera’s feminine dinner dresses on multiple occasions in the past.
The lines of the state dinner gown, with its rather simple skirt and restrained — almost T-shirt-like — bodice, call to mind the quintessential ease of American sportswear. For all the dress’s floor-length, glittering formality, it is neither stuffy nor overwrought. It exudes a confident casualness that is the hallmark of American style.
For this first lady, whom the American fashion industry has come to see as its ambassador on the world stage, few other wardrobe decisions, outside the selection of the inaugural gown itself, carried as much baggage.
The American fashion industry has a historical inferiority complex when compared to its French counterpart. It is a low-grade paranoia, based on a history of operating in Paris’s shadow, one that does not exist in relation to designers of Italian or British descent.
Even today, the self-doubting persists. American designers from Zac Posen to Ralph Rucci continue to go to Paris as a way of testing themselves. “I think with France, there is a special sensitivity,” said Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large for Vogue. “France is still the fashion capital. It’s still a center for innovation and excellence and craftsmanship.”
So it meant something that on a night when the White House set out to dazzle its French guests, Michelle Obama elevated American fashion, placing it alongside other defining aspects of our culture that were in the spotlight. Instead of an homage to French culinary might, the White House offered the best of American food. Mary J. Blige, who came out of hip-hop — the music born in America’s cities, created by its striving underclass — performed for the French dignitaries. And instead of giving a nod to French fashion, Obama turned to Seventh Avenue.
Until Jacqueline Kennedy arrived in the White House in 1961, the question of American design vs. French was not such a fraught consideration in the East Wing. But Kennedy was part of a group of women — women of a certain class — who were accustomed to the precise fit, the clean lines and the aloof grandeur of French style. She was a product of her demographics, but she was also especially proud of her French heritage. Other women in her social circle mentored her on French style. And they helped to orchestrate the memorable wardrobe for Kennedy’s trip to France in 1962, during which she wowed guests at a dinner at Versailles with her ivory embroidered Hubert de Givenchy gown, recalled Bowles, who was curator of “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001.
With an American industry now churning out designer fare and with women taking a keen interest in Kennedy’s clothes, it was expected that the first lady would wear American. Ultimately, Oleg Cassini became Kennedy’s official dressmaker, in large measure because he was skilled at re-inventing the French style she loved so much.
Nancy Reagan, whose affinity for fashion was well known, felt a similar pressure and relied on the deans of American design such as James Galanos, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta for her wardrobe.
Michelle Obama, at times ambivalent about the importance placed on her fashion choices and operating in a far more global economy, has not worn American designers exclusively, although that has certainly been her emphasis. During a visit to Spain in 2010, she wore the work of French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. And on numerous public occasions here in the United States, she has worn designs from the Italian brand Moschino. Her decision to wear a dress from the British label Alexander McQueen to the state dinner for China sent ripples of outrage and disappointment down Seventh Avenue. And her choice of a dress by the Paris-based designer Azzedine Alaia for the recent State of the Union address raised a few eyebrows, even though she had worn his work on many public occasions.
In large measure, the fashion economy is so global that it takes a veritable international village of craftsmen to make a high-end garment or a luxury handbag. While there is a significant movement within the American fashion industry toward bringing more production to New York, the work newly located there is often at the highest level. The more modestly priced a garment is, the greater likelihood that it is manufactured abroad.
But for a state dinner, price becomes a churlish rumble, taking a back seat to glamour, prestige — politics — and a dress that will make America proud.