The day after President Biden released a video announcing he would be running for a second term, he and the first lady, Jill Biden, stood in black tie and evening gown on the red carpet outside the north entrance to the White House to welcome President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, to the second state dinner of the Biden administration. It was interesting timing.
After all, what better way to show just how at home you are in your current role — how graciously you play it — than to welcome the world to your home (relatively speaking) in the ultimate pantomime of national hosting that is the … well, meat, of this particular political ritual?
If the dinner itself largely takes place behind closed doors, one photo always goes wide: the greeting portrait, the two couples, side by side, dressed in pomp and circumstance and symbolism. It tells an implicit story of soft power and priorities.
So what does it say, exactly, that while Dr. Biden and her office were happy to engage in the usual preview of the evening’s menu, décor and entertainment — the blue tablecloths were chosen in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Republic of Korea alliance! The chairs were bamboo, with cushion designs evoking traditional Korean brush painting! — the one subject they did not officially communicate on was what the first lady was wearing?
Amid all the hosting details, it seemed a pretty glaring omission.
It’s not as if everyone couldn’t see her dress, thanks to that greeting photo: a long, mauve column by the Lebanese designer Reem Acra, whose work Dr. Biden has worn for many of her public events since the 2009 Obama inauguration. She wore Reem Acra to her granddaughter Naomi Biden’s wedding at the White House in November, and to the Kennedy Center Honors in 2021.
It’s not as if she (and her office) doesn’t understand her power as a role model: She is the first first lady to continue her day job while also being the human face of an administration. What she wears is a signal in all sorts of ways — about who she is and who and what she represents — just as it has been for every first lady before her. Never more so than in moments of great pageantry like a state dinner.
This is why many such garments are donated by first ladies to the National Archives, and why the Smithsonian collects inauguration gowns. It’s why, during past administrations, the East Wing has released information about first lady’s gowns. It’s why, when Dr. Biden rewears garments, it seems like such a popular statement. It’s why she has worked, unofficially, with the stylist Bailey Moon since Mr. Biden’s inauguration. And it’s not as if clothing is any more or less frivolous, or suggestive of homemaking, than food or flowers. It’s just an easy point of connection: Everyone gets dressed.
So really, what gives?
Acknowledging what Dr. Biden was wearing wouldn’t undermine her substance. And it could do a lot in terms of boosting the name recognition of a designer, spotlighting creativity and telling a story about Biden family values or even Biden administration priorities. Michelle Obama used her wardrobe very effectively to highlight America’s melting pot, its industry and its cross-border cooperation.
But Dr. Biden seems to be overtly rejecting that tradition, especially given how clearly her staff thought through every aspect of the state dinner. In that context, not to include the details of her dress — who made it, its color or design or material — seems a deliberate decision. (Oscar de la Renta, for example, a brand she wore to her first state dinner, is codesigned by Laura Kim, a Korean American, and would have seemed a more obvious choice for this event than Ms. Acra.)
Instead it was left to Vice President Kamala Harris, who wore a bright blue jacket with jet beaded belt over a black velvet column from the South Korean designer Miss SoHee — a brand, probably not coincidentally, favored by Gen Z that recently made a starring appearance at Sofia Richie’s wedding — to pick up the baton of style diplomacy.
Once more: What’s this about?
Consider this: Fashion as a symbol of aspiration was closely associated with the former first lady Melania Trump, once a model, whose guarded persona was often represented in the burnished seams of the luxury brands she wore. As the 2024 election begins to shape up as another possible face-off between Donald J. Trump and Mr. Biden, fashion seems to have become a line in the sand for the current first lady; a very visible point of difference.
She is using it, just not in the way that has become expected. It’s the statement of no statement.
Since the last election, Dr. Biden has carefully positioned herself not as the trophy first lady on a pedestal but as the working first lady next door. This state dinner was a reminder of that framing. A foreshadowing, perhaps, of her role in the campaign to come.
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