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Point | Counterpoint: The First Lady and American Fashion

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A week after Michelle Obama wore a scarlet McQueen gown to the state dinner, a fierce debate has raged over whether a First Lady should be obligated to "wear American" (McQueen is a UK label). Here, we break down the central arguments.

    Point: A First Lady is Obliged to Support American Fashion By Wearing American Designers

    Michelle Obama has already demonstrated the power she wields to make the careers of upstart  young American designers (take, for example, Jason Wu), and considering the fragile state of America's current garment industry, it stands to reason that she should use her position in the limelight to forward the interests of American fashion. The other most fashionable first lady in recent memory, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, was more than familiar with this issue: As found as she was of designers like Givenchy, she committed to a wardrobe commissioned almost entirely by French-American couturier Oleg Cassini upon taking on the First Lady mantle (and enduring some criticism from the American press for wearing too many European labels).

    Oscar de la Renta has been critical of Michelle Obama's fashion choices in the past, and was quick to criticize her choice of McQueen for such a highly-charged event. Shortly thereafter, the CFDA backed him up, telling WWD: "The CFDA believes in promoting American fashion .... so we were surprised and a little disappointed not to be represented for this major state dinner." Even Bob Colacello of Vanity Fair jumped on the anti-McQueen bandwagon, saying that "it was absolutely wrong of her to wear an American designer."

    Counterpoint: A First Lady is Not Obliged to Wear American Designers

    While the style choices of both Michelle Obama and Jackie Kennedy Onassis have been pored over in detail, the main reason for that is simple: They are and were both seriously stylish ladies. More just a woman of taste, Michelle Obama shares a certain educated-about-fashion quality with the former First Lady. She shows a knowledge and interest in a vast array of designers and looks -- all within a framework that flatters. The diversity of her fashion portfolio can be argued to reflect a new globalism -- a very American idea, to be sure.

    The CFDA and de la Renta's critical reaction reek, to a certain degree, of sour grapes, especially when Mrs. Obama has done so much for young American talent already. It also doesn't telegraph a position of strength. Cathy Horyn, in a recent column for The New York Times, went so far as to call the rash of comments "a witch hunt," and noted that the CFDA might not be entirely fair with its remarks:

    The truth is many of its members, including its president, Diane Von Furstenberg, manufacture a significant portion of their clothes outside the United States, mainly in Asia. Why wasn’t that mentioned in the WWD articles? The only explanation I have is that the C.F.D.A. has nothing to gain from being straightforward. But, apparently, it has everything to gain by goading the first lady into wearing American labels.

    While Horyn's main point -- and the point of most of those who support Mrs. Obama's decision to wear McQueen -- centers on a certain "live and let dress" feeling, Horyn does raise a point on which both sides will likely agree: At this rate, the First Lady is becoming known more for her fashion than for her policies, which does not bode well for her legacy as a First Lady capable of creating powerful change.