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Robin Givhan Asks the Next Generation of American Designers to Fashion an Inaugural Look for a New First Lady

The next generation of American fashion designers imagines inaugural looks for the soon-to-be first lady.

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's no exaggeration to say that any American designer would be thrilled to create an inaugural gown for Michelle Obama. The dress she wears to the official balls will be enshrined in history. If tradition holds, it will be donated to the First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History to hang alongside gowns worn by Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.

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And making the commission even more irresistible: The first lady is tall, fit and, the record has shown, willing to take an aesthetic risk.

But the challenges of creating an inaugural gown are immense. The dress not only serves as an emphatic pronouncement of the first lady's personal style, but also reflects how Americans would like to portray themselves to the world. Sophistication, class, modernity, creativity and the elusive notion of Americanness must be evoked in a few yards of silk, satin or organza.

The expectation is that the dress should be designed by someone from an American company. This may be an increasingly borderless world, but the gown is an expression of patriotism. For their first inaugurations, both Clinton and Laura Bush were loyal to hometown designers. Clinton relied on Arkansas-based Sarah Phillips for her purple beaded ball gown, and Bush turned to the Dallas-based Michael Faircloth for her red Chantilly lace one. (For their second inaugurations, both decamped to the atelier of Seventh Avenue veteran Oscar de la Renta.)

First ladies have used their inaugural dresses to set the tone for the incoming administration or even to make a political point. Rosalynn Carter reflected the down-home, frugal flavor of the Carter administration by wearing a six-year-old dress for the 1977 inauguration. Reagan's beaded, one-shoulder James Galanos dress marked the return of glamour, extravagance and optimism to the White House, underscoring the view of America as a "shining city upon a hill."

For all the personal and political symbolism stitched into each dart, the gown is also a bit of an anachronism. It is akin to a wedding gown -- freighted with tradition and expectations. And all the guests at the celebration -- in this case, all 300 million citizens -- figure they have the right to weigh in with an opinion. Folks might be proud of Michelle Obama's Ivy League pedigree. They may respect her as intelligent and accomplished. Still, they will be disappointed if her dress isn't awfully pretty on Jan. 20.

The inaugural gown is inexorably intertwined with the discomforting idea that a woman can and will be judged on her appearance. This stubborn convention has not been shattered despite generations of women's studies classes and 18 million cracks in the highest glass ceiling. One suspects that even if it were Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office in January, not many people would be interested in what the first gentleman planned to wear.

Call the American people sexist, old-fashioned or just plain honest, but the inaugural gown is central to the celebration. It is part of the photographic tableau that is meant to instill pride, joy and optimism. Barack Obama may be the new leader of the free world, but it is difficult to get that excited about a one-button tuxedo that Hart Schaffner Marx says it is custom-making for him.

The dress is what captures the popular imagination. And so we asked a few designers to sketch their dream inaugural gown. We avoided the Seventh Avenue stalwarts and big guns. No Oscar, Donna, Ralph or Calvin. Instead, we took a cue from the future first lady, who has a taste for lesser-known designers, iconoclasts and upstarts. She has worn ensembles by Narciso Rodriguez, Maria Cornejo, Thakoon Panichgul and Isabel Toledo. Phillip Lim -- who debuted his line in 2005 and can design a splendid party dress for less than $1,000 -- opted out of our fantasy fashion show because he submitted sketches in the official gown sweepstakes.

So we turned to the next generation of American designers and asked them to play make-believe. In honor of an administration that has embraced "change" as its mantra, we looked to fashion's future, to find out how the post-baby boomer generations see the next first lady and how they see themselves.

NEXT: See the sketches from eight designers

CONTEST: Submit your own original design


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