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Jill Biden’s twinkling state-dinner dress revived a first lady tradition

Jill Biden wore Oscar de la Renta at the state dinner Thursday, reestablishing a connection between the American designer and U.S. first ladies. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
4 min

It’s just a fact: When the French are coming over for dinner, you should probably step up the glamour. And when those friends are the first couple of France — one of them a veritable fashion icon, a darling of the Paris celebrity-mag press — a little extra sparkle becomes even more of an imperative.

On Thursday night, Jill Biden rose to the occasion. When she and President Biden hosted French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, for the first state dinner of the administration, they greeted their guests in the chilly December air on the White House steps. Beading on the first lady’s long-sleeved, navy, off-the-shoulder column gown twinkled; light danced in the gaps between the multitude of subtle flower appliqués that composed its outer silhouette.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, arrived at the White House for a state dinner on Dec. 1. (Video: The Washington Post)

Yes, the first lady found a way to sneak her signature florals into even the most formal of presidential events — and dazzle while doing it. But that wasn’t her only big statement of the night. Biden’s choice of designer for her inaugural state dinner as first lady — Oscar de la Renta — also spoke subtle volumes about her relationship with not just fashion but tradition.

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For most of the past few days, perhaps predictably, it has been Brigitte Macron whose fashion sensibilities have wowed onlookers. When she arrived Tuesday evening and deplaned at Joint Base Andrews, a French magazine lauded her luxe-looking monochrome beige ensemble, calling its delectable buttery hue under the tarmac lights “luminous” and “downright chic.” To visit the tomb of Pierre Charles L’Enfant at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, Macron wore all black — traditional on top, with a double-breasted long overcoat and a high-collared blouse, and glam on the bottom, with chunky black heels poking out of her signature black cigarette pants.

Biden, meanwhile, has stayed in her comfort zone for most of this visit: Greeting the Macrons at the White House on Thursday during the day, she opted for a high-collar coat, heels and gloves all in the same rosy-pink hue, wearing a head-to-toe jewel tone just as she did for Inauguration Day in 2021. To a private dinner with the Macrons the night before, she wore a dark wool coat over a modest knee-length dress.

A state dinner throws everyone off, just a little. And that’s glorious.

In choosing to wear a custom Oscar de la Renta for Thursday’s state dinner, the first lady not only took some rewarding risks (That surprising neckline! The tiny, playful cutouts!) but also conveyed a commitment to well-loved customs and conventions.

Oscar de la Renta, which is now under the creative leadership of designers Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim, custom-made the dress for Biden. (Garcia told The Washington Post at the dinner, “It was important for her to feel like herself.”) But the American brand’s namesake has been called the unofficial First Designer of the United States for how many first ladies have worn his work. Jacqueline Kennedy, first, in the 1960s; Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush followed in her footsteps.

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De la Renta once criticized Michelle Obama for wearing a European designer (Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton) to a state dinner with China in 2011: “My understanding,” he 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?” Some surmised that the statement was partly born of feeling snubbed: Obama had, up to that point, never worn his designs. (Obama, eventually, well into her second term as first lady, wore an Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress, just weeks before de La Renta died.) Like Obama, Melania Trump wore de la Renta only sparingly.

First ladies, in other words, used to wear Oscar de la Renta to formal presidential occasions all the time. Biden’s glittering dress on Thursday night, then, was not just an elegant fashion choice but a bold step toward the restoration of a cherished relationship. And above all, a statement of support for the American fashion tradition.

Robin Givhan contributed to this report.