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Robin Givhan on Fashion: Must a White House state dinner really be so stately?

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

A White House state dinner is an affair like no other because the sartorial demands are so precise, the politics both superficial and opaque and the entire display of pomp, circumstance and exclusivity precisely the kind of thing that goes against our national character. Of course, it is irresistible.

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There's nothing democratic about a state dinner, no way to throw open the doors and turn the guest list into a Facebook free-for-all. (Although one wonders, in this age of share-every-detail-as-fast-as-humanly-possible, will there be Twittering between the courses?) A state dinner dazzles -- at least in theory, if not in fact -- because of its exclusivity, its location and its relative rarity. They do not happen on a monthly basis.

The president and first lady will host their first state dinner Tuesday evening, almost a year into their White House tenure -- and after honing their hospitality skills with a governors' dinner, assorted luncheons and countless receptions. The guest of honor is India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur. Singh is an economist who was sworn in for his second term in May. The leaders of the world's two largest democracies will have an opportunity to bond in black tie.

If tradition stands, the details of the guest list and the china pattern will be revealed in the hours before the dinner. And if modern restaurant fetishes are any indication, the provenance of every vegetable and soy product -- the 77-year-old prime minister is a vegetarian -- will doubtless be detailed.

The state dinner is approaching an unseemly ratio of 99 percent political and 1 percent social, and that makes for the strangest sort of red carpet of them all. When then-President Bill Clinton hosted a formal evening in celebration of India in September 2000, the questions posed by reporters to arriving guests ranged from What can be done to solve India's tense relationship with Pakistan over the Kashmir region? to What's the likelihood of global annihilation sparked by nuclear proliferation in South Asia? And the guests seemed eager to answer in position-paper sound bites.

But is frothy couture really the appropriate attire for dismal talk about Armageddon? Is the belief behind the political soiree essentially that men in tuxedos and women in gowns are better behaved and more reasonable than those in navy blazers, shirt sleeves or a nice St. John Knit?

Only Washington could merge such opposing sensibilities: chiffon and catastrophes, champagne and the Doomsday Clock. The state dinner is a bit freakish in that way. It should be a social occasion of powerful, rarefied, lucky people -- women in pretty dresses and men looking dashing. But that's not how Washington works. How dare those pols use the money of good and honest taxpayers for a party if all they're doing is having fun! They're too important to be just having fun. Everything must mean something.

So the clothes can't be too fanciful, too fashiony, too anything. They should be appropriate and festive, like what you'd wear to an extremely expensive, ultra-formal wedding.

The capital's most fabulous moments are left to the Kennedy Center Honors, arguably this city's most glittering affair. It is an arms race of flattery and glamour. Imaginations are loosed on that promenade. The onetime Washington philanthropist and doyenne Deeda Blair, who has since relocated to New York and left this city a little less stylish, once wore a Chanel couture gown to the Honors that was so dazzling in its design that it turned Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia into a fashion critic. There were reports that His Honor virtually swooned.

At the Kennedy Center, Hollywood, Broadway and political top dogs all converge. Bare skin is in order. A little bit of eccentricity is expected. You know how those artsy types are, after all.

The inaugural balls deserve only a passing mention in this context because the idea that they are grand and glorious affairs is such a falsehood that Presidential Inaugural Committees should be forbidden to describe them as balls -- a term that implies something elegant as well as festive. A "ball" should not leave one fretful about turning over an evening coat to an overburdened cloakroom for fear that it not be found until sometime around Veterans Day. Inaugural balls don't have red carpets; they have crudites on Styrofoam and cash bars. Guests are encouraged to wear something old, something borrowed or something that can withstand the jostling of a thousand hungry people.

But everything changes with a state dinner at the White House. All those who pass through the gates to enter the landscaped grounds become part of a grand political spectacle. At a state dinner in 1996, low decolletage wasn't merely sexy or daring; it was a political trap for a president known to have a roving eye. Clinton was hosting a state dinner for Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. The voluptuous Italian actress Sophia Loren was a guest and she arrived with her magnificent cleavage framed in an ivory evening gown by Giorgio Armani. As she made her way through the receiving line, media observers paid close attention to Clinton's gaze, waiting to see whether it would waver -- even the slightest -- from where it belonged to where it was most emphatically being drawn. Reports indicated that Clinton maintained steely eye contact. But no guest should really put the leader of the free world to such a test of willpower.

At a June 1999 dinner honoring the president of Hungary, media mogul Martha Stewart, in her pre-jailbird days, wore a pink silk Ralph Lauren pantsuit. The tailored suit was made up of capris and a short matching jacket. The ensemble may have been just the thing for a modern businesswoman to wear to a summertime formal affair -- a crisp show of feminine authority -- but a state dinner is not the place for a gender power play in the guise of a fashion statement.

Stewart's ensemble just wasn't fancy enough for the evening. It wasn't so much that she wore pants -- at subsequent formal events in New York, for instance, Stewart has made clear her preference for evening trousers and has looked lovely in them. It was that these pants, cropped at the ankle, looked a bit dismissive of the splendor and tradition inherent in her surroundings. The White House isn't cool or hip. It is historic; it is patriotic. And if a guest dismisses her surroundings and her surroundings are the White House, that's not just rude, that's political.

Over the years, most guests have been cautious in their attire. They have aspired to be formal but not flashy. In 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright bemoaned not being able to wear a sari to Clinton's dinner for India. Instead, she was in a sober navy suit. (It is probably for the best that guests who have never worn a sari before do not choose Tuesday's state dinner as the moment to start. Just heed Diana Vreeland's wise observation: "Pink is the navy blue of India.")

Over the years, the faux pas have been few. The stumbles have been minor and, often enough, out of a guest's control. In 2007, for a white-tie dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, Ashley Manning -- wife of football star Peyton Manning -- and ABC's Robin Roberts showed up in the same Monique Lhuillier dress, albeit one was in black and the other was in chocolate brown. Not a calamity, but really, what woman wants that? And back in 1987, at a state dinner hosted by Ronald Reagan, the French-born American designer Pauline Trigere hiked up her long leopard-print dress to prove to reporters that she still had the legs for miniskirts. Most likely, they would have taken her word for it.

When the Obamas celebrate India, presumably no one will hoist her skirt -- nor her sari. No overly generous servings of naked bosom will challenge the president's willpower. And if guests are especially lucky, they'll be asked that signature red carpet question -- Who made your dress? -- at least as often as they're asked about the trade policy that made it possible.


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