Whose dress will go to the ball?

Image of Vanessa Friedman

There are three big fashion events this week. It’s hard to know where a style-watcher should look: to Paris, where the couture shows kick off on Monday; to Washington, DC, where Barack Obama’s inaugural balls – 11 official dos and multiple more unofficial ones – also take place on Monday; or to Davos, where the suits’n’smarts shows begin on Wednesday: fur hats and rubber boots in the snow. Any of the three is bound to provide fodder for the fashion watcher, what with the tribal dressing that goes on, be it ever-more-towering stilettos at couture; navy suits in Switzerland; or tuxedos and sparkles at the Washington Convention Center.

Still, I know which one I’m most excited about, because it’s the one I think will actually have the biggest ripple effect on us all, and the one that is hardest to predict. It’s the inauguration, stupid. (That James Carville line, in its endless mutability, was a real gift to journalists.)

Just think about what happened four years ago: Michelle Obama appeared in that white lace dress, and, before you could say “first lady”, its unknown designer, Jason Wu, had become famous (so famous that he recently launched a second, more accessible line, Miss Wu). Whatever you thought of the dress – and there were many, including me, who thought it a little too prom-like for an adult woman – it made an enormous impact. And its 2013 follow-up is bound to do the same.

Part of this has to do with Mrs O herself, and her calculated role as shop window for the fashion industry, especially young or independent designers – not to mention designers that, like her husband, personify the melting-pot traditions of America.

And part of it has to do with the event, which, whatever you think about the myth of the “imperial presidency”, is the closest thing the US has to a royal coronation: a fancy party that everyone gets to see (pointedly, in countries that actually have royal coronations, such as the UK, the heads of government don’t get these kinds of galas).

Already, the speculation has begun. To be accurate, it began last December, when the website inaugurationevents.com ran a blog entitled, “Which designer should Michelle Obama Wear to the Inaugural Ball?” The Boston Globe joined the debate this month, placing odds on names such as Vera Wang and Marchesa, and style.com proffered its suggestions: 14 possible looks for the First Lady of the United States (Flotus), including a Jason Wu number – though the odds of that happening again are low, given the careful way Mrs O spreads her clothing choices. Another little-known designer, Seaki Ache, threw his hat into the ring by posting sketches online in an attempt to catch the first lady’s eye, but he seems a long shot.

Also probably not in the running is Oscar de la Renta, whom Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton both chose for their second inaugural ball. Both had picked a local designer for their first outings (Michael Faircloth and Sarah Phillips, respectively), then learnt from the experience, and went with the global name next. De la Renta hasn’t really been part of Mrs O’s wardrobe thus far, perhaps because he is so associated with the Washington status quo, while her husband has always positioned himself as an outsider. De la Renta also probably didn’t help his case when he publicly criticised the first lady for wearing Alexander McQueen to the Chinese state dinner in 2011.

Of course, Mrs Obama could surprise everyone by going with de la Renta, which would be a real signal of a change in policy. Indeed, I wonder if something like this isn’t in the works.

The blogosphere is leaning towards Prabal Gurung as the likely choice – the first lady has worn his dresses before, and he’s another young, melting-pot designer – but, to me, that’s too predictable. The Mrs O camp likes to say she simply wears what she likes but I think that’s disingenuous: there’s more at stake than just a woman’s right to look pretty.

This has been one of the most image-conscious first families in the White House – they understand that, in the age of mobile-phone snapshots, they’re always on display. It would be unlike her to let an opportunity such as an inaugural ball go to waste as a communication device.

Certainly, all indications thus far are that in term two she, like her husband, will shift her agenda: away, perhaps, from supporting small businesses by serving as an ambassador/model for young designers’ wares, and towards a more example-setting recession policy – see the recycled dresses worn on the campaign trail and for election night. I won’t go so far as to say she would do the same for the inaugural balls but nor do I think she’ll show up in a quasi-princess frock again. The fairy tale is over – both for the Obamas and for the people who elected them – and it would seem inappropriate to pretend otherwise.

So I’d put my money on an elegant gown from a familiar name: a dress that wouldn’t leave the talking heads with much to say, in fashion terms, other than, “Didn’t she look good”. A dress that wouldn’t give much quarter to anyone who wanted to read implications about constituencies or sectors into its seams (anyone like me, in other words). A dress that moved the focus off fashion and on to – well, whatever Flotus wants to do next. I’m not sure what that dress is. But I bet she is.


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