Details are still nonexistent for the Japanese state dinner happening on April 28 at the White House. Which patriotic tasting wine will be sipped, how will the delicate flowers and fancy napkins be arranged and what seemingly random American songbird will be entertaining the room-slash-tent of dignitaries and celebrities with tangential ties to Japan? Answers still unknown.
The East Wing, which likes to hold the frou-frou finer points hostage until the 11th hour (all the better to fan intrigue and squelch the number of “they’re spending how much?” think pieces), will most likely release the menu, guest list and program just ahead of Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s Washington visit.
What we do know is that the eighth state dinner of the Obama administration, which has held the fewest number of these official soirees in recent memory, will be watched more closely than most precisely because of the seemingly frivolous behind-the-scenes details that have nothing to do with diplomacy.
The dinner will be Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard’s splashy swan song to the post he’s held since 2011. Bernard, the first male and first openly gay White House social secretary, got the gig after former Desirée Rogers’s famous flameout. Rogers’s problem was that she was out front (magazine covers, front row at fashion shows, etc) in a role that supposed to be behind-the-scenes.
Will Bernard, who’s moving back to California after his time in the White House is up, use the Japanese state dinner as an exclamation point? We’ll have to wait and see. Adding to the backstage whispers is the matter of the table arrangements. White House head florist Laura Dowling left the job earlier this year and the East Wing has yet to announce her replacement.
State dinners are like the Super Bowl for the social secretary and head florist, especially in the Obama era because there are so few. At this year’s big game, the head coach is on his way out and the offensive coordinator has been gone for weeks.
There will also undoubtedly be bets on the first lady’s uniform. Traditionally Mrs. Obama’s choice of outfit acts as a head nod to the country being celebrated. She wore Korean-American designer Doo-Ri Chung at the 2011 Korean state dinner and Indian-born American designer Naeem Khan to 2009’s state dinner for the Indian prime minister.
One radical choice would be Comme des Garcons, the high fashion Japanese design house. White House watchers will recall that Rogers wore Comme (as it is called by those in-the-know devotees) to the Indian state dinner that sealed her fate.
At the time Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote that Rogers “attention-getting dress” declared her “a fashion savant.” It was a faux pas for someone with that job title.
With a Comme gown, the first lady could signal a full circle moment in the White House after six years of settling in. That type of fashion choice would send a message that she first pointed to with the modern design of the Old Family dining room: that she has arrived.