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."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk