Why Britannia wasn't so cool for Michelle


When Michelle Obama chose to wear an Alexander McQueen gown to a state dinner in honour of Chinese president Hu Jintao last week, she was presumably unaware of the controversy such a gesture might spark.

"My understanding is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade," Oscar de la Renta, the designer favoured by the New York social set told Women's Wear Daily (WWD). "American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why do you wear European clothes?"

The perceived snub by one of the world's most powerful women highlighted the often fraught diplomacy required simply to get dressed when your every step and choice of dress is subject to such scrutiny.

And the row didn't stop there. While some fashion bloggers suggested the dress was chosen for the deep symbolism the colour red carries in China, Diane Von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), issued a statement, also printed in WWD: "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."

The First Lady's choice of outfit, both from the point of view of aesthetics and politics, has always been highly individual. Perhaps she can take solace in the fact that, in ruffling the feathers of the American fashion establishment – and there are no greater exponents than de la Renta and Von Furstenberg – she is in fine company.

During John F Kennedy's campaign, the wife of his opponent Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, criticised America's soon-to-be First Lady's "continental" taste. Jackie Kennedy duly hired the services of French-American dressmaker, Oleg Cassini, a former Hollywood costume designer. Unsurprisingly, his designs were for the most part pared down copies of the French originals (among the exceptions was the real Chanel wool skirt suit that she refused to change out of when it got blood-stained on the day her husband was assassinated).

British leading ladies are afforded a little more freedom than the trans-atlantic counterparts. While Samantha Cameron is supportive of British fashion – unsurprisingly given her official capacity as British Fashion Council ambassador – she is as likely to be seen wearing Spanish Zara, or Japanese Uniqlo, as she is the London-based designer Erdem, who is Turkish-born.

Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion, by Robb Young (published next month by Merrell) lists not only Michelle Obama, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Queen Rania of Jordan as among the world's most scrutinised women, but also historical icons including Eva Peron and Margaret Thatcher, all of whom have done much good – and on occasion harm – to their native or adoptive country's fashion designers.

On the occasion of Michelle Obama's supposed fashion faux pas, meanwhile, Steven Kolb, the CFDA's executive director, has turned out to be the voice of reason. "Mrs Obama is the First Lady but she's also an individual," he said. "She's going to dress in clothes she feels comfortable in. I don't think she's making a statement. She's just choosing clothes as a woman."