Dressing down the first lady

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Well, there goes Oscar de la Renta's chances of dressing Michelle Obama.

The elegant fashion designer has reignited a 50-year-old debate by criticizing the first lady for wearing a gown by a British designer to Wednesday's state dinner. "My understanding," de la Renta told Women's Wear Daily, "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?"

The red ball gown, created by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, was a sartorial hit and, by all accounts, Obama looked spectacular. But it was a surprising choice, considering two Chinese American fashion designers were obvious possibilities: Vera Wang, a guest at the dinner, and Jason Wu, who created Obama's inaugural gown.

So the question persists: Does the first lady have an obligation to showcase American designers?

Jackie Kennedy thought so. The chic first lady adored French fashion - especially clothes by Hubert de Givenchy - but gave it up when she moved into the White House. She named a French American couturier, Oleg Cassini, to create her entire wardrobe, which combined French style with an American pedigree.

Obama's McQueen gown immediately created a buzz. Bob Colacello of Vanity Fair weighed in: "I think it was absolutely wrong for her to wear something by a foreign designer." Kate Betts, author of "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style," told the Associated Press that "you expect an American or an American-based designer for an occasion like this." But plenty of other fashionistas had Obama's back, arguing that she wears American designers all the time.

De la Renta, of course, is an old hand when it comes to first-lady fashion: He's been dressing them for decades, notably Hillary Rodham Clinton's second inaugural gown and a red lace jacket and suit that Laura Bush (and three other women) wore to the Kennedy Center Honors. But nothing yet for Obama.

The designer told WWD his criticism wasn't personal: "I'm not talking about my clothes, my business. I'm old, and I don't need it. But there are a lot of young people, very talented people here who do." He made similar comments in 2009 when the first lady sported J. Crew in London. "American fashion right now is struggling. . . . There are a lot of great designers out there. I think it's wrong to go in one direction only."

Then again, fashion insiders couldn't help but notice that de la Renta sent a red printed ball gown - almost identical to McQueen's dress - down the runway in his Fall 2010 collection. Sour grapes?

A spokesman for the designer didn't get back to us; the White House had no comment.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company