Why Oscar de la Renta and Criticism of Michelle Obama’s State Dinner Dress Are Wrong

Critics have been weighing in on the red Alexander McQueen gown that Michelle Obama wore to the state dinner for China. For various reasons, they really should have kept their opinions to themselves.

First, there’s this quote from Oscar de la Renta: {via the Cut}

“My understanding, 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?”

Then there’s one from political pundit Bob Colacello on Vanity Fair:

“My only criticism of the whole thing is of Michelle Obama’s choice of designer and dress. I think it was absolutely wrong for her to wear something by a foreign designer, particularly at a dinner for China, with which we have a terrible trade imbalance. She really should be promoting American fashion. And I think the dress itself was all wrong, too. It made her look gigantic. She completely overshadowed President Hu, and even President Obama looked small next to her. I think she’s trying too hard to be fashion-forward, and that’s not really what a First Lady should be. It’s too bad, because she’s a beautiful woman—and it’s a beautiful dress, but just wrong for the occasion.”

To address Mr. de la Renta’s query, one normally wears clothes because they like the way the clothes make them look and/or feel. It’s part of why people look at what Michelle Obama is wearing in a way that they didn’t for Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush. She doesn’t dress according to a set of fashion rules, she wears things that she likes. Not everyone likes the same things that she does – and that’s fine, but people look at her clothes because they show a level of personality and daring that hasn’t been seen in a while. In and of itself, that’s doing more for fashion than sticking with safe choices that are universally acceptable.

To address the point of both his and Colacello’s critique that a British brand doesn’t have a place at an American state dinner, we have to ask that someone kindly remind both gentlemen that Americans have moved on from 1776. When it comes to de la Renta, don’t misunderstand us: in spite of being an established designer, his clothes are still beautiful and the label has shown forward thinking and modernity in accessories, its engagement on social media and in general.

Both critiques ignore the modern realities of the fashion industry, however.

An American fashion designer does not always mean made in America. Just ask Mayor Bloomberg and the committee fighting to save New York’s garment district. American designers frequently send production to Chinese manufacturers, and promoting American design alone – which Mrs. Obama has done on several occasions – won’t change that.

Colacello’s last point is almost too silly to address, but we will. The dress itself was a vibrant shade of red, which is symbolic to the Chinese. Mrs. Obama is 5’10”, so in comparison to a shorter person, other than amputating a limb or two for the occasion, she will stand out. President Obama is a slim man and he’s wearing all black; it doesn’t take an art degree to figure out that a red ball gown will stand out in comparison. Also, she’s 47 not 74 – matronly gowns that blend in with the curtains and osteoporosis to put world leaders at ease with their height are both a few decades off.

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