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Vanessa Friedman

Vanessa Friedman


On Tuesday night, at her final state dinner as first lady, Michelle Obama solidified her legacy as perhaps the most adept and successful practitioner of the art of political dressing that any administration has seen.

Her choice of an Atelier Versace gown for the Italy state dinner was not only a nice bit of sartorial diplomacy — Versace being an Italian success story, a company often touted as a candidate for a public offering — but, coming less than a week after her magnetic speech in New Hampshire on women and respect, it went far beyond being simply an ambassadorial nod to a guest country’s talent and made a powerful subliminal statement.

The dress, after all, was made of rose gold … chain mail. As much as it was gracefully cut and draped, it also spoke of armor and female strength, of the need to gird yourself to fight for what you believe in. And it was designed by Donatella Versace, a woman who was famously thrust into one of the most difficult situations of all: having to take over and preserve the company founded by her brother after his murder in Miami. And who, despite a fair number of doubts, has ultimately triumphed — in part by transforming the aesthetic of her company from one built on the power of sex to one built on the power of self.

After all, Ms. Versace did describe her most recent women’s wear collection, shown in Milan last month, as, “all about a woman’s freedom: freedom of movement, freedom of activity, freedom to fight for their ideas, freedom to be whomever you want to be.” And she set it to a soundtrack by the trance duo Violet + Photonz that featured the statement that it was time for women to “take the leap.”

Given the current political conversation in the United States, think that’s a coincidence? Think that escaped the East Wing?

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Especially given that Mrs. Obama has worn other Italian labels, including Gucci (on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” last month), Missoni (during her 2013 trip to Italy and Britain with her daughters) and a black-and-white print Giambattista Valli earlier in the day when she and the president greeted Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife, Agnese Landini in Ermanno Scervino. But, until Tuesday evening, she had not appeared in Versace.

Especially because Ms. Versace designed the gown specifically for Mrs. Obama, according to a company spokeswoman.

Especially because Ms. Versace then said, ”I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to dress the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Thank you Michelle for all the things you did for America and for the rest of the world, for the women in the U.S. and the rest of the world.”

The first lady’s wardrobe adviser, Meredith Koop, is on record as telling Harper’s Bazaar that when engaging in cross-border events, Mrs. Obama always takes into account a “country’s cultural norms” and attempts to “pay tribute.”

During her eight years in the White House and 14 state dinners, Mrs. Obama has not always hewed to this policy (at the Nordic state dinner in May she wore the Indian-American designer Naeem Khan), but for the majority of the time it has proved the rule. As a result, it has changed expectations about the role of dress in apparently ceremonial situations. Every look the first lady wears to a state dinner practically breaks the internet and is described with adjectives such as “stuns” and “wows” and “slays.” But the fact is, what makes them really notable is that they go beyond the simply pretty (though they are also pretty).

They demonstrate, in the same conscious way that characterizes so many of Mrs. Obama’s choices, that even the most seemingly superficial detail, when considered, can have a meaningful resonance. Whether the next person to occupy her position is a first gentleman or a first lady, he or she should take note.

Correction: October 19, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated the lyrics of a song by Violet + Photonz. The song, translated from Italian, suggests that women “take the leap,” not the “lead.”

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