By Vanessa Friedman
The flowers were red, white and blue. The food was a mix of haute and homey. The entertainment was cross-border. And the gowns? They were representational, too.
As President Joe Biden and Jill Biden welcomed Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron of France to the first state dinner of Biden’s administration, which was also the first state dinner held since the COVID-19 pandemic began and the first state dinner held during the holiday season, the picture was of hospitality at its most highfalutin. A gathering of symbols, made for both diplomatic and public consumption, that, as Jill Biden said in a news conference the day before, offers “a way to connect through a language that transcends words.”
Starting, of course, with the opening photo op: the picture that represents the night. For all the information conveyed about the food and décor, it’s the first photo that most noninvited guests get to see. Which is why the costumes matter. They represent a form of both aspiration and connection: a glittery bit of national self-expression.
And what they represented this time around was tradition. Of a very specific sartorial kind.
That is not just because both presidents were in the requisite tux (well, duh) complete with de rigueur flag pins on their lapels. It is because both first ladies chose to wear designers synonymous with their countries. Brigitte Macron in white and silver Louis Vuitton, as has become her wont for major public occasions, and Jill Biden in Oscar de la Renta, a label that has dressed nearly every first lady since Jackie Kennedy, albeit in varying degrees.
It was a striking, if not entirely surprising, choice. Reassuring. Familiar. Which, in uncertain times, may have been the point.
The dress was custom-made, in navy crepe, and off the shoulder with hand-embroidered motifs and beading. It was elegant without being edgy, a little glittery but not showy, and very American. As much a bit of national boosterism as the evening’s color theme, which was a nod to both the French and American flags, and the decision to include the Statue of Liberty in the menu design. Walking, in other words, the fine line between Biden brand values and the demands of black tie pageantry.
Just as de la Renta, the brand, itself walks the line between the establishment and the new: A New York fashion stalwart, it is designed by Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim, two young creative directors who themselves represent the American melting pot. (Garcia and Kim were invited to the dinner, as were Bernard Arnault and his wife, the owners of Louis Vuitton, who were seated at the top table.)
“We were thrilled,” Garcia said afterward. “An incredible honor.”
Little wonder, perhaps, that Oscar de la Renta seems increasingly to be the first lady’s label of choice for her major appearances.
She wore de la Renta when her husband made his victory speech during the 2020 election; on the cover of Vogue; at the International Women of Courage Award ceremony; and at a NATO summit (to name a few occasions). By choosing de la Renta yet again for the state dinner, Biden seems to be returning to the practice of first ladies having a few go-to names as de facto dressers (Jackie Kennedy, for example, had Oleg Cassini; Nancy Reagan had James Galanos), the better to craft a consistent image.
The practice fell somewhat out of favor during the Obama years, when Michelle Obama decided that the general obsession with her wardrobe could be used to shine attention on as wide a variety of names as possible. And though Melania Trump was generally less inclined to use her clothes as tools of communication — she did wear Chanel for her first state dinner, also with the Macrons, in what seemed to be a form of outreach — Biden may be bringing it back.
It’s hard to know for sure, however, because her office is notably mum on all matters fashion. In the entirety of the speech Biden gave the day before the state dinner explaining the thought process behind the menu (down to the cheese selection), the floral décor and the entertainment — Jon Batiste, “a performer who grew up in New Orleans, which has been shaped by both French and American culture” — she did not mention her dress. Later her office simply confirmed the designer.
It’s too bad, because given the attention paid to every detail of the evening, including the guest list, which included such names as Anna Wintour, chief content officer for Condé Nast and editor of Vogue (who arrived in vintage Chanel, a nod to France, and with director Baz Luhrmann), Tim Cook and Jennifer Garner (who wore Ralph Lauren and brought her daughter Violet), and given the fact that she knew it would become part of the public narrative of the night, there’s no question she (and her team) considered its implications and meaning.
It would not make her seem less substantive to acknowledge the strategy behind her dressing choices. As the first first lady to continue to work while in the White House, Biden is a role model for a host of women, proving you can have your professional identity and personal (public) life, too. In that, fashion is simply another tool of communication and soft power. And how you dress for a state dinner is potentially a useful teachable moment.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.