Mirror, Mirror: Ravishing red, a feminine flow - utter perfection

Last week red dress after red dress appeared at the Golden Globes, including Jennifer Lawrence (above) in Dior Couture, Claire Danes in Versace.
Last week red dress after red dress appeared at the Golden Globes, including Jennifer Lawrence (above) in Dior Couture, Claire Danes in Versace. (PAUL DRINKWATER / NBC Universal)
Posted: January 24, 2013

I can't help but wish first lady Michelle Obama had chosen a ravishing, ruby-red gown four years ago when she made her first twirl on the inaugural dance floor with the president.

But this is not about me. It's about FLOTUS, and it was clear that Obama and her chosen designer Jason Wu were playing it safe back then with the white, one-shoulder gown.

After all, we really didn't know either of them yet.

Well, now we do. And play time is over.

Obama flexed her bronze, muscled back in a stunning halter gown at the Commander-in-Chief Ball Monday night, to much applause - including my own.

Watching from my living room TV, I stood up and clapped when Obama walked out to dance to Jennifer Hudson's screeching rendition of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." The dress was splendid yet so simple. It moved like a wave.

Wu, who designed this dress too, said he wanted the gown to look festive but soft. Bits of velvet were woven into the handloomed chiffon floral pattern.

"Red is so confident," Wu, 30, said in a CNN interview Tuesday morning. Before Obama wore his white gown in January 2009, he was unknown outside the fashion industry. Since then, he has produced a collection for Target and lines of accessories. "It's commanding and it's beautiful. It's passionate. It's all of the things that define Michelle Obama to me."

And that is precisely why the first lady chose Wu a second time around. He gets her.

Still, the buzz was loud Tuesday morning on news shows and Twitter with people complaining that Obama should have picked another designer. Give another emerging designer a chance, they whined. At first I was a little put off, too. Deep in my soul, I wanted her to choose Tracy Reese - the woman behind the reddish-pink, ombre A-line dress that Obama wore during her August speech at the Democratic National Convention.

But that's not fair. Many first ladies have a favorite designer, and if it helps the designer build a fashion empire, so be it. No one criticized Nancy Reagan for consistently picking Oscar de la Renta for her special occasions, and Jacqueline Kennedy turned to French-born designer Oleg Cassini for much of her wardrobe.

A go-to designer becomes a go-to designer because he is tried and true, because he delivers, successfully, for the biggest events in his clients' lives. Also, a woman picks a designer, or a brand, because she likes the way the silhouettes flatter her physique, the story the designer's collection tells from season to season, and most important, she sees herself as the object of the designer's inspiration.

Our first lady picked Wu again because she looks stunning in his dresses, not to mention that this one didn't crinkle and it showed off her beautiful shoulders.

"Designers understand that sometimes they get picked and sometimes they don't," said Natalie Nixon, associate professor of fashion industry management at Philadelphia University. "She was saying this is the designer that speaks to me. Other first ladies do the same thing. She has been consistent in staking her claim and the aesthetic that speaks to her."

And let's remember that Obama is just like every other woman - she may decide at the last minute that she feels more fitted than flouncy, more blue than red. (It's part of the reason why the White House doesn't announce the chosen designer before the balls. No woman wants to be without choices.) There was another dress in the running - maybe that one wasn't Wu. We don't know.

Still, I'm so glad red spoke to her.

As with her other fashion-forward choices (the stack of bangles, her long bangs), Obama is on trend: Red is no longer a kitschy holiday color, the shade for Valentine's Day, Christmas, and women of a certain profession. And it's clearly not a color so closely linked with Republicans that a Democrat won't touch it.

In fact, it's returning to its original status in fashion - classy and feminine, soft and inviting, sexy and confident. All day, Obama looked powerful, businesslike, an in-control mom. In her red dress, she looked like a woman excited to be on a date - with the most powerful man in the world.

It's the same fashion zeitgeist inspiring Hollywood stars to channel their inner girl power, on the red carpet. We saw a bit of it at the Academy Awards in 2012 with Natalie Portman's polka-dot Dior and Michelle Williams' peplumed Louis Vuitton. Then last week, red dress after red dress appeared on the carpet at the Golden Globes with Jennifer Lawrence in Dior Couture, Claire Danes in Versace, Naomi Watts in Zac Posen, and Marion Cotillard in Dior.

"There is no question that red is having its moment," said Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute. "And so is Michelle Obama."

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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