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Xi's US Visit 2015

Fashion face-off set for China, US first ladies Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama

Both women have been known to use fashion as a "non-verbal diplomatic language", observers say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 11:58pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 1:40am

Both heralded as style icons in their countries and abroad, the first ladies of China and the United States will meet in a fashion face-off as President Xi Jinping and his wife head to the US for his first state visit.

Peng Liyuan , a former military singer, will be in the limelight later today when she accompanies Xi on a visit to Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington state. Pupils will sing In the Field of Hope, one of her most celebrated songs.

Peng has gained prominence abroad, becoming a symbol of "first lady diplomacy" since her husband took up the presidency in 2013.

Apart from accompanying Xi on his overseas trips, she has spoken about HIV/Aids prevention as well as promoted World No Tobacco Day with Microsoft's Bill Gates. She was appointed the World Health Organisation's goodwill ambassador in its campaign against tuberculosis and HIV/Aids in 2012.

Read more: Full coverage of Xi Jinping's US visit 

Peng's US counterpart Michelle Obama launched a campaign against childhood obesity in 2010 and has also commented on sensitive issues. Last year, she was the first presidential wife to make a trip to China without her husband.

Although the White House said the visit was more cultural than political in nature, Michelle Obama also touched on issues such as freedom of speech and "universal rights".

"You would expect [Peng] to do something of a 'softer' nature, much more complementary to her husband. One of the very few exceptions where the wife takes on a political role is Hillary Clinton," said Steve Tsang, senior fellow with the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

Read more: First lady Peng Liyuan spurs boom in demand for home-grown labels

"Everyone has a different … preference for a public role ... Peng clearly enjoys it and Xi is comfortable with it."

But all eyes will be on what they wear. Fashion experts say both women have been known to use fashion as a "non-verbal diplomatic language", each an embodiment and advocate of their nation's culture and designers.

"Peng's style tends to be more formal, very elegant and dignified. She wears tailored clothing with traditional elements ... and [not] many embellishments," said Jeanne Tan, associate professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Institute of Textiles and Clothing.

"Michelle Obama is more experimental. We've seen her in mass fashion brands to couture brands and even some flirty dresses."

The US first lady has worn a range of clothing - from affordable American fashion retailers such as J. Crew and Target to exquisite ballgowns by world renowned designers like Alexander McQueen.

Peng, on the other hand, has been more elusive about what brand or make of dress she wears, even though she has been known to support home-grown Chinese names such as Exception de Mixmind.

"In Chinese culture, humility and grace are revered traits. The first lady's unrstated elegance and style is the epitome of that," said Jerri Ng, editor-in-chief of Chinese women's style magazine Modern Lady.