No one calls it the nerd prom anymore. Like every other event involving a red carpet these days, the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner has become yet another opportunity to use a moment of image-making to generate conversation and influence public opinion. It only stands to reason.
After all, who understands the point of the photo op and the way it attracts eyeballs in the chaos of the mass social media-sphere better than those who helped to create it and the politicians they cover? They know that while we may come for the celebrities who gravitate toward the warm glow of power and substance — last year, it was Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson making their official debut as a couple; this year, it’s Chrissy Teigen and John Legend — what lingers is the way the real stars of the evening use their moment in the spotlight. The most interesting choices are about a lot more than pretty clothes.
(See, for example, the decision by Tamara Keith, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, to use her dress to pay homage to the polka-dot dress Holly Hunter’s character wore to the W.H.C.D. in “Broadcast News,” a film that sparked her own desire to go into journalism.)
Who did it best this time around? The answers may surprise you.
The senator from Pennsylvania continues his streak as one of the most notable dressers in Washington. Given that he only recently returned to the capital after being treated for depression, joining the melee on the red carpet at the W.H.C.D. with his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, was a deliberate statement about his recovery, his willingness to be open about his experience and his resilience. “Got him in a tux,” his wife tweeted, referring to Mr. Fetterman’s penchant for shorts, Dickies and Carhartt hoodies — and the way, since he was sworn in at the capital, he has played by the rules of the institution.
Still, he didn’t entirely abandon the just-a-regular-guy wardrobe that helped get him elected and that has been part of his signature even in Washington. Note the black sneakers on his feet. They are a sign that he knows what he stands for — and which is why his style matters.
The White House press secretary chose a white dress by Emily Adams Bode for the dinner, demonstrating her facility with the game of fashion diplomacy. Ms. Bode is not only an independent designer in New York, but also one who made her name working with upcycled fabrics and other castoff materials, allowing Ms. Jean-Pierre to underscore the Biden administration’s efforts toward local manufacturing and sustainability.
Not to mention the American fashion industry, which hasn’t had quite the same love from the current West and East Wing regimes from some previous administrations. (Ms. Bode being something of a poster child for American fashion success, having won the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for best American men’s wear designer for the last three years and recently branching out into women’s wear, which she unveiled to great acclaim in Paris.)
Word has it that Ms. Jean-Pierre will also be attending the Met Gala, all of which suggests this may be a foreshadowing of a deeper relationship to come.
The “Uncut Gems” star and former object of Kanye West’s affection and Svengali tendencies fully embraced her role as the evening’s so-unexpected-it’s-cool guest. She won the red carpet by showing up in a black bustier and feathered gown with rubber opera gloves, a handbag shaped like a leather jacket on a hanger, and a face painted Kabuki white with exaggerated black eye makeup.
The look, not surprisingly, set off a flurry of fevered speculation: Was this her high-fashion way of implying that Washington was a clown town? Was she getting ready to punish someone? The most interesting possibility was that her look was an implicit reference to “Black Swan.” And not just the 2010 Natalie Portman movie, but also the 2007 book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in which the author introduced the black swan theory of unexpected events. It arguably pretty much describes the last six years in Washington, not to mention the upcoming presidential campaign. That might be overthinking the outfit, but it’s still a pretty intriguing idea.
Finally, the vice president had a moment to shine. Literally, in a dusty blue sequined column dress by Sergio Hudson, the Black designer who also made her inauguration gown. It was a jolt not to see Ms. Harris in her usual understated dark suit — and notable that she wasn’t taking the fade-into-the-background route by simply wearing a tux like the men around her. Even though the vice president, like the president and the first lady, skipped the step-and-repeat, she was impossible to miss from her seat on the dais, suggesting that this may be the beginning of a more visible role in the campaign.
If so, it’s about time. She’s the first woman vice president and the first woman of color to hold the seat. She might as well use her clothes to remind everyone of just how pioneering she is — and to pave the way to more interesting, evocative dressing for all women to come after her.