On Monday, January 21st, fashion critics and fashionistas waited with baited breath to see what, or rather who, First Lady Michelle Obama would wear to the Commander in Chief Ball at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, and her choice did not disappoint. She did, however, surprise many by opting for yet another stunning number by Taiwanese-American designer, Jason Wu, who designed her dress for President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. This time around, she made a more daring sartorial decision, choosing a vibrant floor-length ruby-red halter-neck velvet and chiffon gown, which was a major departure from her first inaugural dress: a romantic, albeit demure, one-shouldered white chiffon concoction.
Since then, Michelle Obama’s fiery red Jason Wu dress has fueled endless discussions on Facebook, Twitter, and personal style blogs. People can’t seem to stop talking about the power of her dress and what it represented. After Michelle first wore Wu’s design in 2009, the designer’s career underwent a meteoric rise. Almost overnight, the nearly-unknown designer became a household name. Fast-forward four years: Wu has launched a wildly successful capsule collection for Target, won the prestigious Swarovski Award for Womenswear at the CFDA Fashion Awards, and regularly dresses A-list celebrities for red carpet events. Most recently, Wu was chosen as one of the 17 designers in the Museum of Chinese in America’s highly anticipated fashion exhibition, Front Row: Chinese American Designers, set to open April 26th.
Why is Michelle Obama’s choice of dress so important? After all, the piece is worn once then put away behind glass at the National Archives. The First Lady’s choice matters because more than fashion statements, inaugural dresses are potent cultural symbols. The gowns chosen by the First Lady – along with all its idiosyncrasies, from its color to its cut – tell a story about the woman wearing it, and moreover, about the current socio-cultural times in which we live. Perhaps the boldest fashion statement made in First Lady Inaugural history, Michelle Obama’s dress choice did not just jumpstart a young designer’s career, it set the tone for what the world could expect from her as a new First Lady. Elegant, confident, and empowered, she embodied the quintessential modern woman in Wu’s dress.
Clothing and fashion are effective mediums for self-expression, and perhaps even more importantly, tools for self-reinvention. And reinvention, after all, is one of the main tenets of what it means to be American: to create yourself according to your aspirations. As President Obama stated eloquently in his second inaugural address, “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive…and a gift for reinvention.” Jason Wu, who immigrated to America when he was a child, is a living example of such an American dream. At a young age, he has become one of the most successful designers not only of his generation, but in the world of fashion. Our upcoming exhibition, Front Row, will showcase that creative talent and give audiences a feel for the transformative power of fashion and design.
Front Row: Chinese American Designers opens at MOCA on April 26, 2013. In addition to Wu, the exhibition features designs by Thomas Chen, David Chu, Melinda Eng, Jade Lai, Derek Lam, Wayne Lee, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Phillip Lim, Mary Ping, Peter Som, Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam, Yeohlee Teng, Zang Toi, and Vera Wang
Serena Cheng is currently a Curatorial Intern focused on the exhibition Front Row at the Museum of Chinese in America.