At Wednesday night's black-tie White House dinner for the Prince of Wales and his consort, Camilla, the royal missus committed the selfless act of wearing such a dull ensemble that she made first lady Laura Bush look as though she had stepped from the cover of a glamourpuss magazine. Standing alone, Mrs. Bush looked lovely. But next to Camilla, whose Robinson Valentino blazer and skirt made her look like a large rectangle, the first lady reminded one of a radiant bride shining brightly next to a dutifully bland bridesmaid.
Camilla took an aesthetic bullet. She looked plain and unremarkable -- except for those magnificent jewels encircling her neck and snaking down toward her tastefully concealed cleavage -- ensuring that she did not distract from the prince in his nicely tailored tux. And for anyone tempted to bring up the memory of Princess Diana and her visit to the White House 20 years ago, Camilla so firmly announced her unwillingness to compete that she made it unseemly to even offer a comparison.
Once again designer Oscar de la Renta did well by Mrs. Bush with an amber off-the-shoulder gown with embroidered flowers and a waist-defining belt. De la Renta, who attended the elegant dinner, is one of Mrs. Bush's Seventh Avenue favorites, and he memorably created the winter white dress and coat she wore to her husband's second inauguration and in which she looked utterly spectacular. This dress did not make an equivalent aesthetic splash, but it looked modern and feminine with its flirtatious neckline that showed off her shoulders. It apparently took no coaxing to get Mrs. Bush to show a smidge of skin. The first lady saw the dress in another color, de la Renta said, "and she loved it."
Mrs. Bush accessorized her dress with a necklace of citrine and diamonds from Fred Leighton, the Madison Avenue jeweler famous for its generous loaner policy among the celebrity set. (Two years ago, the jeweler lent Judith Nathan a diamond and pearl tiara for her wedding to former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.) From a distance, the necklace looked as though it might have been made of rubies, but a spokeswoman for the jeweler quickly confirmed that it was indeed made of citrine, albeit with stones that were a warmer, deeper shade of yellow than usual. But neither the jeweler nor the White House was quick to clarify whether the necklace had been purchased or borrowed. When the question was put to Mrs. Bush's press office yesterday, a spokeswoman reported that the only person who knew was unavailable because she was traveling with the first couple in South America, where, she seemed to be suggesting, neither cell phones nor BlackBerrys are operable. After some hemming and hawing, a spokeswoman from Fred Leighton finally confirmed that indeed the necklace was a loaner and that the jeweler was "just delighted" to have been able to accommodate the first lady.
One can only assume that all the fussing and hedging grew out of worry that some ill-mannered person might pronounce it tacky that the first lady was borrowing jewelry since the Bush family is loaded. Citrine is only a semiprecious gem and every little nudge to the economy helps after all. (Mrs. Bush was also wearing a watch, which was noticeable because her dress had bracelet sleeves. That seemed a bit unnecessary and was even a bit of a quotidian distraction on such a singular evening. There must have been plenty of folks to keep track of the minutes as they ticked by.)
The president looked handsome in his tuxedo. For once he didn't have the body language of a kid with a bad sunburn forced to wear a wool suit. Since his arrival in the United States on Tuesday morning, the prince has been wearing an artificial red poppy on his suit jacket lapel. It is in recognition of Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, when Britain honors those who were killed in combat, particularly during the two world wars. The poppy has come to symbolize the war dead because it flowers so exuberantly in battle-scarred soil. As for the prince's style, as long as he relies on a good bespoke suit he really can't go wrong.
Judging from the simple suits that Camilla has been wearing since her arrival in New York, one might assume that her aesthetic goal is simple: Do no harm. She has worn little that is distinctive and nothing that has been surprising. She has wisely chosen not to wear any hats, although British milliner Philip Treacy, famous for his flamboyant designs, reportedly made at least one for the eight-day trip.
Several observers have noted that the duchess is appropriately dressed for her age. But that just seems like a diplomatic way of admitting that one doesn't have anything particularly nice to say. Who among us would be pleased to hear a spouse respond to a new ensemble with, "It's perfect for your age!"
The raspberry suit Camilla wore at the British Memorial Garden in New York was a lovely color and made her look lively and cheerful. You look alive, darling! (How low is that aesthetic bar?) The more somber aubergine suit worn to the SEED school in Washington was a bore. (But then Mrs. Bush wore a rather bland taupe suit, so at least the two were a matched pair.) Camilla looked her most glamorous Tuesday night when she wore a navy velvet cocktail dress to a champagne reception at the Museum of Modern Art. Designed by Anthony Price, who is most famous for having created the costumes and wardrobe for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, the dress showed off her cleavage and hinted at a womanly shape. She looked pretty, feminine and dynamic and not like a cardboard cut-out in a Prince Charles photo op.
Those who have met the duchess say that she is warm, intelligent and substantial. She is not a clotheshorse, they say. And that is wonderful. But she is also a public person about whom Americans know very little. (We are only just now learning about her work in fighting osteoporosis.) Mostly, she has been known as one of two leading characters in a tawdry, public affair. Now, that tale is being played as a love story. The leading man's love interest needs to get better costuming.