As the White House staff polishes the silver for the last state dinner of the Obama administration, it’s worth taking a look back at how the first couple — the youngest to occupy the White House since JFK and Jackie — has shaped the institution of the state dinner.
In most ways, they left the tradition that began well over a century ago — the most formal of Washington entertaining, with its black-tie dress code, heavy-stock invitations and high diplomacy — intact. Even as some observers have called such pinkie-fingers-crooked entertaining outmoded (former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once boasted that he does not own a tuxedo and argued that black-tie dinners are not constitutionally mandated) and expensive, the Obamas preserved its formalities.
The Tuesday evening affair will be their 14th state dinner, which is less than Bill Clinton (28) but more than George W. Bush (11). Rather than blowing up the state dinner, replacing it with a cocktail-dress-code event or maybe just one of the dance parties they have thrown for friends and family, the Obamas modernized it in subtle ways.
“The Obamas were always very aware that there was a tradition they were following, and yet they put a contemporary spin on it,” says Jeremy Bernard, who was the White House social secretary from 2011 to 2014. He points to small innovations — like married couples being seated near their partners instead of being split up, per the archaic rules of formal entertaining — as evidence of the ways that the Obamas brought the formal entertaining style “into this century.”
Their picks for musical entertainers were slightly edgier, younger and from a wider variety of genres than previous administrations, choices that track with the first couple’s avid interest in music. (See the frequent White House concerts and those famously eclectic POTUS Spotify playlists). They reflected the farm-to-table movement by incorporating ingredients from the White House garden into the menu. And Michelle Obama’s interesting fashion choices lent an element of spectator fun to the evening. (“Who will she wear?” the social-media watchers wondered as they pre-gamed.)
And even as the dinners remained exclusive affairs whose guest lists comprised members of Congress, chief executives and movie stars, the Obamas sought to open the doors just a bit wider, inviting on at least two occasions “regular Americans” who had written letters to the president and first lady with touching stories. At the August dinner in honor of Singapore, alongside VIPs such as Secretary of State John F. Kerry and actress Keri Russell, was Army Maj. Jeremy Haynes, who had written to the first lady about his wife, Chelsea, who had been his caregiver since he was wounded in Afghanistan.
Haynes was shocked when she invited them to the White House — to a state dinner, no less.
Here’s a look back at the greatest hits of the past eight years:
The Obama’s first foray into the high-stakes entertaining game started off with an embarrassing hitch when two aspiring reality TV stars managed to crash the 2009 state dinner in honor of India’s then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Tareq and Michaele Salahi, then relatively unknown polo-loving socialites from Virginia, achieved infamy when they showed up sans invites and mingled with legitimate guests. The gate-crashing was memorialized on the short-lived “Real Housewives of D.C.” — and in a congressional inquiry into how the Secret Service dropped the ball.
Michelle Obama’s gowns are reliable hits, but the one that spoke the loudest might have been the dress she picked for the first state dinner, for India. With the choice of the silver-appliqued, strapless (gasp!) column by Indian American relative newcomer Naeem Khan, the first lady announced that her gowns on such occasions wouldn’t be mere frocks — that there would always be the possibility that they were statements.
With the modern silhouette and accessories (a wristful of glimmering bangles and bold earrings) the FLOTUS also signaled that she was taking cues not from past first ladies’ closets but from red-carpet Hollywood, adding an extra gloss of glamour and real-world relatability to state-dinner fashion.
True to the Obamas’ advocacy of locally grown foods, produce from the garden outside — and the bounty of the newly installed White House bees — often turned up on the china. Perhaps the biggest stunner of a dish was the “Winter Garden Salad” that White House chefs served at the 2014 dinner for French Prime Minister François Hollande.
Petite radishes and baby carrots, with a dressing of garden-fresh herbs and honey from the White House hives, nestled just so in an aquarium-like bowl? Simply gorgeous.
The decor at state dinners is typically quite traditional, with lavish flowers and elegant place settings the norm. An especially pretty pick was at the 2015 dinner in honor of Chinese President Xi Jinping: Shades of pinks and corals turned up in the linens and in masses of roses and dahlias.
But the boldest, most modern decor moment came at the dinner honoring the leaders of five Nordic nations, when the White House skipped the traditional billowing tablecloths and ballroom-style furniture for sleek woven table runners, clean-lined chairs and rustic farm-style tables, perhaps in honor of their design-forward guest nations. Another stunning touch was the clear ceiling of the tents on the South Lawn, allowing guests a glimpse of the stars.
Celebrity guests had been a staple of the state-dinner recipe for several administrations, but the Obamas took the VIP-invite game to the next level. Still, the guests who made the biggest splash might have been those with the shortest commute: Sasha and Malia Obama attended their first state dinner in March, to fete Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Obamas’ (particularly the first lady’s) platinum membership in the BeyHive, singer Beyoncé’s fervent fan base, is well known. So it’s no huge surprise that Queen Bey showed up in all her diva glory for 2010’s state dinner in honor of then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife, Margarita Zavala. But come on, it’s Beyoncé. Wherever she shows up, she shuts it down. According to reports, the “Run the World” singer arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in a strapless beaded gown encrusted with more than 20,000 hand-sewn gunmetal-gray Swarovski crystals.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said the 2009 state dinner honored Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2009, Manmohan Singh was prime minister.