Michelle Obama’s China Trip: ‘Style Showdown’? Try ‘Style Diplomacy’

Michelle Obama and her mother and daughters meet with China President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing.

Michelle Obama and her mother and daughters meet with China President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing. (Sina Weib0/Live Nanjing)

Since making her stylish first international public appearance almost exactly one year ago, China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan has frequently sparked comparisons to U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama for holding national “style icon” status. Now that Obama is in the midst of her first solo trip to China, the global media is one again zeroing in on the First Ladies’ fashion—with some saying the meeting between the two is a global “style showdown.” However, if you take a look at the soft-power aims of Michelle Obama’s trip, it’s clear that every part of the itinerary has been orchestrated to create a sense of camaraderie with China—right down to the U.S. First Lady’s wardrobe.

Arriving without the presence of the U.S. President, Obama’s week-long trip is all about “gentle diplomacy.” The White House has stressed that the trip will be “non-political,” and is focusing on the feel-good topic of education rather than China’s ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. “Her visit and its agenda send a message that the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders, it’s a relationship between peoples,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, when asked about the trip.

In order to foster friendly feelings, Obama is clearly taking Chinese culture into account. The choice to bring both her mother and daughters on the trip and include them in photo ops shows a strong sense of filial piety and family connectedness, which will play well with the Chinese public.

While Obama’s fashion choices may seem like an afterthought, they were definitely carefully thought out as well. Known for commonly wearing pieces by Asian-American designers such as Jason Wu, Obama stepped off the plane in a dress by Derek Lam, a designer of fourth-generation Chinese descent. Later, when she visited the Forbidden City with Peng, she wore a vest by Phillip Lim, another American designer from a Chinese family.

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Michelle Obama and family arrive in Beijing.

It’s not just the designers that matter. In a friendly greeting with China President Xi Jinping and Peng, the U.S. First Lady and daughter Sasha wore bright red dresses—a color auspicious in Chinese culture. The vibrant “China red” popped up all over the runways this season as part of a likely bid by designers to reach Chinese customers.

This isn’t the first time Michelle Obama has been cognizant of “fashion diplomacy” with China—in 2011, she wore a gown of the same red hue for a state dinner with China President Hu Jintao. It’s not just China that gets this treatment—at a state dinner with India’s Prime Minister in 2009, she appeared in a dress by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan.

The focus on fashion was a smart move, because Chinese media and commentators are definitely reading into her outfits. “The Chinese red is festive! Could it be because she holds Chinese culture in high esteem?” said one Weibo commenter. When discussing the Derek Lam dress Obama wore stepping off the plane, the Oriental Morning Post wrote, “the pattern is meant to be a pair of lovers embracing; it seems as if she is indicating the profound friendship between China and America.”

It also wasn’t lost on anyone that she was wearing pieces by designers of Chinese descent—Chinese media has been commenting on the fact that she enjoys wearing many “Chinese designers” such as a Wu, who designed her gowns for both the 2008 and 2012 inaugural balls. Although Obama tends to pick from U.S.-based designers such as Wu and Lam, their Chinese heritage is still a plus point in the eyes of Chinese media.

This sense of diplomatic friendliness may be a bit more questionable on the Chinese side, however—Weibo users have been quick to point out that the meeting with Xi was held at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. Diaoyutai (钓鱼台) is the Chinese name for the set of small islands that are a major territorial contention point with Japan, which calls them by their more commonly known name, the Senkaku Islands. Luckily, the name of the guesthouse is supposed to be linked to the fact that it was once a Chinese emperor’s favorite fishing spot rather than the islands, so the friendly feelings can continue for now.

 

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Fashion, Policy