It was a night of comfort food and canny comfort dressing — strange adjectives for a state dinner, an event normally known for pomp, circumstance and grand gowns. But everything is relative, and these are complicated times, demanding a careful balance between displays of power and humility in the face of other people’s pain.
Jill Biden, the first lady, acknowledged it herself in the preview for Wednesday’s party in honor of the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, calling food “reassuring and healing,” and noting that the planned entertainment, the B-52s, had been swapped out for the U.S. Marine Band and the Army and Air Force Strolling Strings. Then she put her outfit where her words had been.
She went with Reem Acra, and she went beige. It was her equivalent of the roasted vegetables, butternut squash soup and braised short ribs on the menu.
With its high, round neck and simple lines, Dr. Biden’s dress — in a nondescript color, albeit covered in an overlay of silver beaded leaves — was both fancy and a little frumpy, walking the fine line between sparkle and neutrality. Sparkling in its neutrality even.
And though Dr. Biden has worn Reem Acra on so many major public occasions (the Bidens’ second state dinner, for the South Korean president and first lady; the wedding of Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan; and her granddaughter Naomi’s wedding at the White House, to name a few) that the designer is clearly part of her comfort zone, the choice was also a pointed one.
Ms. Acra is a Lebanese American designer, and Dr. Biden’s embrace of her work has not gone unnoticed in the Arab world. For the American first lady to wear Ms. Acra’s work to a state dinner at this particular time seemed less like a coincidence than a specific reminder of the power of diplomatic relations, and what it means to work with this particular administration. Not to mention a sign of faith in the American melting pot as a place of unity across backgrounds, rather than divisions.
Maybe that’s reading too much into the choice; Dr. Biden is clearly a fan of Reem Acra designs. But consider the dress of Jodie Haydon, Australia’s first lady. An equally understated dove gray tulle dress by the Australian label Paolo Sebastian, founded by the designer Paul Vasileff, a former Young Australian of the Year, it was covered in embroidery of native Australian birds and flowers, including the kookaburra and the Sturt’s desert pea. With it Ms. Haydon wore jewelry from the Australian brand Cerrone, which, like the dress, was “on loan,” her office specified.
And consider the fact that earlier on Wednesday, at the arrival ceremony for Mr. Albanese and Ms. Haydon, Dr. Biden had worn a raspberry trouser suit from Carolina Herrera with a large pin in the shape of an Australian golden wattle, the national flower, on the lapel.
Nothing is left to chance on occasions like these, when photos of the host and the honored guests are often the only communications most of the world sees. Though Dr. Biden is clearly less interested in managing the semiology of her wardrobe and how it is received than first ladies like Michelle Obama, she is not oblivious to it. She’s an English teacher, after all. She knows the story is contained in the details.