The silver Rachel Roy sheath dress Michelle Obama wore to the State of the Union last night was a safe choice, and not mostly because it had sleeves, but because it was by an American label. Those bare arms that used to be Michelle's biggest sartorial conundrum have taken a backseat to the nationality of her clothing. Oscar de la Renta, who has lamented Michelle's wearing non-American labels before, magnified the issue last week when he vocalized his disapproval of the Alexander McQueen gown Michelle wore to the state dinner. Council of Fashion Designers of America president Diane Von Furstenberg took the time — as she recovers from a recent ski accident — to issue a statement supporting de la Renta's sentiments.
“CFDA believes in promoting American fashion,” the statement read. “Our First Lady Michelle Obama has been wonderful at promoting our designers, so we were surprised and a little disappointed not to be represented for this major state dinner.”
CFDA executive director Stephen Kolb called dressing Michelle "the pinnacle" for designers, who can "know that what they’re doing is interesting and is appreciated by someone of her level." The significance of Michelle wearing a certain designer to an event like a state dinner is the international exposure, he says.
"For a lot of designers, their ability to grow their businesses is going to be in the global marketplace. In some instances, there’s really no growth in the U.S. and [these designers] need to do that to succeed. That’s important to us. So anytime that there’s a stage or international setting that you can celebrate American fashion, it’s a good thing."
Michelle does not dress exclusively in American labels, though she had for state dinners until last week. The CFDA has an obligation to advocate on behalf of its members, who are surely aware of the walking business opportunity Michelle Obama represents. A study published in the Harvard Business Review placed an estimated value on the public appearances Michelle made wearing clothing from November 2008 to December 2009 at $2.7 billion, which is not an insignificant sum. When Michelle wore a label's clothing, the stock spiked upward. If that label wasn't listed on the stock exchange, the stores that carried them benefitted.
So the McQueen dress was a confusing message, given that enormous thought must have been put into it. Michelle has many causes to promote, like her Let's Move health initiative — most of her speeches aren't about promoting the American fashion industry. But she knows her clothes send a message, and she uses them in this way, as people in Washington tend to do. At the state dinner, the red seemed like a deliberate choice to honor her Chinese guests. But maybe, in her search for a red dress, that happened to be the best-looking option available to her for the occasion. Imagine the upset if she wore something that didn't look good.