The Alexander McQueen gown Michelle Obama wore to the state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao this week was one of her most stunning dresses since her husband took office on a few levels. It was notably designed not by a Chinese or Chinese American designer, but a British house, paying homage to China with its vibrant red hue. The dress was an altered version of a look from Sarah Burton's first full collection for Alexander McQueen, resort 2011, with an asymmetrical neckline instead of puffy sleeves. The first lady could have worn something by Jason Wu, one of her favorite designers, who is of Taiwanese decent, or Vera Wang, of Chinese decent, who was a guest that evening. Perhaps a dress by one of them would have pacified Oscar de la Renta, who — after going on The View almost two years ago to defend what he said about one of Michelle's cardigans — is back to verbalize his disapproval.
“My understanding,” de la Renta told WWD, “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?”
De la Renta noted that Obama remains a major fashion get, with the power to boost a house’s business. “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 said.
But surely, if Michelle's decision to wear sleeveless garments can be viewed as the "only bracing symbol of American strength," a big, expensive, red ballgown must mean so much more then that.
Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn writes approvingly of the McQueen dress, saying that it "sent out a number of signals. Fortunately, they were not mixed." The gown reminded her "of the opulent state dinners of the Reagan era," and she thought it "had a [sic] just enough pomp to signal the importance of this state dinner." Horyn notes that Michelle "has worn black and red before — memorably, on the night her husband was elected president." That Narciso Rodriguez look also caused great debate, though the concern wasn't the dress's nationality, but how it looked. (We liked it. There.)
The Daily Beast's Robin Givhan had many more words to write about the dress than Horyn, but she too looks on it fondly, while noting that it was an "intriguing" pick because McQueen himself had "no obvious" connections to China. And because it is never enough to say, when looking at the first lady wearing clothes, that she simply looked fashionably beautiful, Givhan offers this analysis:
The red petal print, silk organza gown wasn’t so much an act of diplomacy as a broad statement about the new realities of the fashion industry. In choosing a dress from Alexander McQueen, Mrs. Obama championed the cause of artisan design, the legacy of bespoke tailoring, and the staggering creativity that can be nurtured in the frock trade when it is at its best. The sleeveless dress, with its asymmetrical neckline, was created by a house that represents the designer imagination at its most indulgent and devilish. And in wearing the gown to honor China, a country that many view with disdain for its abundance of cheap labor, counterfeit products, and poor labor practices, Mrs. Obama seemed to be recognizing the country’s inevitable place in the fashion cycle and giving it its due. Indeed, Chinese consumers represent a vast new marketplace for designer companies, and the production quality of its factories continues to improve. In short, Mrs. Obama’s choice was an optimistic celebration of all that fashion can be and it seemed to suggest that China was welcome to be a part of that vision.
So. How 'bout that Anna video, eh?