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At the Kenya State Dinner, Jill Biden Is True Blue

There are few moments of political theater as grand as a state dinner, essentially a pantomime of diplomacy and national pride from the set to the staging to the scripts — and the costumes. In that drama, the first lady is cast as both hostess and symbol, her dress a part of the decorative storytelling of the night.

Through the five state dinners of the Biden administration, Jill Biden has seemed comfortable with the hosting part of her (nonofficial) job, but she has never seemed all that excited about the fashion part. In those moments of high public attention and posing, she has most often chosen to wear gowns from traditional White House designers (Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren) that, while elegant, didn’t seem exactly sewn with subtext.

On Thursday, at the state dinner for Kenya, that finally changed.

In a sapphire blue dress covered in sequins, crystals and bugle beads, with a swath of satin across the bodice and sleeves, Dr. Biden played her part. At the official photo op, as she and the Kenyan first lady, Rachael Ruto, flanked their husbands, President Biden and President William Ruto, in matching tuxedos and bow ties, it was the women who stood out.

Dr. Biden’s dress was by Sergio Hudson, a Black American designer who has been a part of the Biden story since the 2020 election. It is the first time she has worn a gown by a Black designer at a state dinner.

Mr. Hudson first became widely known during Mr. Biden’s inauguration, when Michelle Obama wore his plum-colored trousers, turtleneck and greatcoat to the president’s swearing-in. Vice President Kamala Harris also wore a Sergio Hudson look to the inaugural balls — a black sequin column and long tuxedo coat — one of a series of looks by Black American designers she chose to mark becoming the first Black woman to be elected vice president.

Since the beginning of this election year, Dr. Biden has worn Mr. Hudson’s work twice. Each time she wore his long-sleeve sequined bodysuit with loose trousers to be the keynote speaker at major events. (One of the trademarks of her time as first lady has been a laudable willingness to re-wear looks.)

The first time she wore the look was in February, at a gala in Los Angeles for the 15 Percent Pledge, a nonprofit founded by the designer Aurora James after the murder of George Floyd to support Black designers. “We’re all here because we know the threads of social justice are interwoven with economic justice,” Dr. Biden said at the event, where she discussed the Biden administration’s record on equity.

She wore it again in March at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles, where she talked about marriage equality and the threat to democracy.

That she would wear Mr. Hudson yet again to the first state dinner for an African leader since 2008, and at one of the largest state dinners of the Biden administration — one with a guest list that seemed calibrated in part, as The New York Times wrote, as a campaign event — is probably not an accident.

“It’s the highest honor to be able to design for the first lady,” Mr. Hudson wrote in an email. “I think it would be a dream for any American designer, and I consider it a career milestone.”

He said the dress was made with the Kenyan first couple in mind. “A lot of African formal wear incorporates vibrant color and draping,” he said, “so this particular style felt right for a state dinner with Kenya. I wanted Dr. Biden to feel glamorous and evoke royalty considering the guests of honor.”

Speaking of those guests, Mrs. Ruto stepped off the plane in Washington in a kitenge dress in the colors of the Kenyan flag and wore a flounced gown of corroded gold to the state dinner. She has been a highly effective and active ambassador for her country’s fashion since her husband took office. Perhaps in recognition of that, Vice President Harris wore a caped Chloé gown by Chemena Kamali in the green of the Kenyan flag to the state dinner.

In that context, the blue of Dr. Biden’s gown was similarly striking. It was the blue of the Democratic Party, the flag (especially when paired with a red carpet), loyalty and honesty. Earlier in the day she wore a light blue suit — one that matched her husband’s light blue tie — for the Rutos’ arrival ceremony. She’s pushing a lot of buttons.

This stepped-up dressing is consistent with what seems to be Dr. Biden’s stepped-up role in the presidential campaign. State dinners may not be for everyone — after the entrances, what happens in the tent is private — but the pictures send their own message. Dr. Biden is showing up as true blue. That’s one takeaway that’s not just for the folks in the room.


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