Decoding the messages behind first lady fashion at the Xi-Trump summit

China’s first lady defies fashion advice by opting for a traditional qipao, while Melania Trump nods to Chinese culture

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 11:26pm

China’s first lady Peng Liyuan opted for a glamorous, traditional indigo qipao dress for the dinner she and her husband attended at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, despite fashion experts’ advice that she go for a simple, modern and international look that would show a more open and embracing attitude to other cultures.

Peng, known to be fond of traditional Chinese designs and motifs, went all out to highlight her Chinese cultural roots on Thursday.

In comparison, US first lady Melania Trump, a former model, chose a simple, over-the-knee- length, thick strapped red dress with daisy appliqués.

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The US media have interpreted her choice of red - “a symbolic colour in China that represents happiness and good luck”, as Vogue magazine reported - as “a deliberate nod to Chinese culture”, the publication said.

Zhang Jing, fashion editor at the South China Morning Post, said Peng looked glamorous and was well accessorized with her small, dark clutch evening bag and stole.

“Peng’s dark inky coloured qipao is very traditional, feminine and Chinese. With the detailed floral embroideries and plum-coloured velvet stole, this outfit had it’s own sense of glamour - however it was much more traditional than Melania’s modern style,” she said.

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Before the summit, Zhang said Peng should avoid qipaos, also known as cheongsams, because they were too traditional. Hong Kong fashion designer William Tang recommended she choose a “simple-design dress without too much unnecessary pattern”.

Mainland couturier Grace Chen, who has close contacts the business and political elite, agreed a more modern style was more fitting for a formal diplomatic setting.

“You can have a Chinese influence, but a modern style shows a more open and embracing attitude to other cultures,” she said.

“Simple, elegant - and this is the United States so you don’t need to be so uptight, you can be more relaxed and easy going in style. I think that attitude and style is something that Americans would appreciate,” she said.

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Peng often incorporates elements of Chinese traditional design and motifs, such as modern knee-length cheongsams, floral patterns and mandarin collars, in her outfits.

But Zhang said it was interesting that Peng went all out displaying such Chinese traditional elements at the Mar-a-Largo summit as at other public events her outfits have been much more modern and Western.

When Peng and her husband attended a White House state dinner with former president Barack Obama and his wife in 2015, China’s first lady wore an embellished silk gown in a rich aquamarine hue, boasting intricate beading on its bodice and skirt.

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“She is camera savvy, but also very aware of how wearing conspicuous logos and Western luxury brands would put her and Xi under public scrutiny in light of Xi’s austerity measures within the Party elites. Western first ladies do not have the same problem and are frequently seen in the most expensive luxury fashion brands,” Zhang said.

Melania Trump’s sleeveless, red daisy-appliqué crepe midi dress by Valentino is priced at US$5,490 at the Fifth Avenue-based luxury goods department store Bergdorf Goodman’s website, according to CNN.

Still, Zhang said the Chinese first lady’s fashion was an influential form of soft power that always caught the media and public’s attention, in a similar way to Michelle Obama and Melania Trump and Samantha Cameron and Jackie Kennedy in the past.

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“Peng’s very polished and presentable look is a soft power representation of a new China - a growing world power trying to put on a more public relations-friendly face in the global limelight,” she said.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka, despite her influence in his administration, has largely steered clear of the limelight. She dressed in a low-key sleeveless blue dress on Thursday.

There were few surprises in Xi and Trump’s outfits, with the two leaders ties matching the colour tone of their wives’ dresses. Xi wore a blue tie and Trump red.