There were no celebrity guests, Hollywood entertainers or superstar chefs. But as she stepped out of the background to host her first state dinner, Melania Trump sought to sparkle during her moment in the spotlight.

After ditching her trademark dark sunglasses for a white skirt suit and hat earlier on Tuesday, the first lady appeared in a Chanel gown to greet President Emmanuel Macron of France and his wife, Brigitte, as they arrived for the first state dinner of Trump’s administration.

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It was a big moment in fashion – and public life – for the former model, who has kept a relatively low profile since Trump took office and who is playing hostess at her highest-profile event yet as her husband is shadowed by a legal threat from a porn actress who says she was paid to keep quiet about a sexual encounter with Trump, which he denies.

With her first state dinner, Melania Trump seemed to be aiming to make a statement. 

In a nod to France, she wore a black Chantilly lace Chanel haute couture gown, hand-painted with silver and embroidered with crystal and sequins, according to her spokeswoman. 

Her French counterpart wore Louis Vuitton.

The president lavished praise on his wife as he gave a toast at the opulent affair, calling her “America’s absolutely incredible first lady”. 

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He went on to hail the bonds between the United States and France, saying: “May our friendship grow even deeper, may our kinship grow even stronger and may our sacred liberty never die.”

With 123 attendees, the event was smaller and more intimate than some of former-president Barack Obama’s dinners. 

Among those in attendance were Vice-President Mike Pence, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and two Winter Olympians, who flashed their gold medals on their way into the pre-dinner reception.

Guests seated at Trump’s table included Apple CEO Tim Cook and CIA director Mike Pompeo, the president’s nominee for secretary of state, as well as Macron and his wife.

In his toast, Macron talked about the countries’ “unbreakable friendship” and referenced both his and Trump’s rapid political ascents, saying: “On both sides of the ocean some two years ago, very few would have bet on us being here together today.”

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While Ivanka Trump, a senior White House adviser and the president’s elder daughter, and Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, wowed in designer gowns, there were no surprise celebrity guests, in contrast with past years.

Asked what she was looking forward to, Linton said: “Everything French!”

The White House stressed that Mrs Trump, who planned her 2005 wedding, had a hand in every aspect of the social denouement of Macron’s visit. 

She released a brief video showing her working on the details with her staff, including the menu and the cream-and-gold table settings.

The guests, seated at round candlelit tables decorated with bouquets of white flowers, dined on rack of lamb and nectarine tart served on a mix of china settings from the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. 

After-dinner entertainment was courtesy of the Washington National Opera.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mrs Trump wore a stylish belted suit with a broad-brimmed chapeau for her public appearances, including on a brief outing to the National Gallery of Art with Mrs Macron to view an exhibit of works by French painter Paul Cezanne.

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The hat stayed put as she returned to the White House and took her front-row seat in the East Room for the president’s joint news conference with Macron. 

It bobbed up and down across the bottom of television screens as she entered the room and again as she rose to leave, spawning many a Twitter meme.

The hat was designed by Herve Pierre and the skirt suit was by Michael Kors.

Mrs Trump’s white outfit recalled another high-profile occasion, the president’s first State of the Union address, when the first lady wore a white pantsuit. 

Trump gave the speech soon after news broke that his personal attorney had paid adult-film star Stormy Daniels US$130,000 just before the 2016 presidential election to keep quiet about a sexual encounter Trump says didn’t happen.

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Inquiring minds wondered what kind of statement the first lady sought to make with her attire.

Mrs Trump was largely absent from Washington during the first six months of the administration, opting to continue living full time at the family’s Trump Tower penthouse so their now-12-year-old son, Barron, wouldn’t have to change schools in the middle of the year.

She was rarely seen – and even more rarely heard – during those months, even after she moved to Washington last June.

But she seems to be trying to change that, even pushing back publicly against her critics. 

She recently convened a White House discussion on cyberbullying, an issue she made her platform despite her husband’s penchant for belittling and berating his foes on Twitter. 

Mrs Trump acknowledged that people were sceptical of her commitment, but said it would not stop her from doing what she believes is right: helping children and the next generation.

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