Michelle Obama’s State of the Union dress was a powerful political statement

That marigold was as American as red, white, and blue.
That marigold was as American as red, white, and blue.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Last night (Jan. 12) was US president Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, which means it was also the last one for Michelle Obama. The media—fashion and otherwise—are always eager to see what the stylish First Lady will be wearing, and she didn’t disappoint. Opting for a wool crepe, sleeveless midi dress in dazzling marigold, she stood apart from the crowd without being overbearing. It’s hard to think of a more camera-friendly look for the occasion.

Just as notable as how her dress looked, though, was what it represented. Its creator, Narciso Rodriguez, is a prominent American fashion designer who also happens to be a married gay man and the son of immigrants who fled Cuba to find a better life in the US.

The First Lady notably chose a dress by Rodriguez for election night in 2008. But now, when anti-immigrant sentiment feels particularly elevated—stoked in no small part by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—and as the gay rights movement continues to make important strides, it subtly endorsed the liberal values promoted by the left and by the president. (And it sold out by the end of the evening on Neiman Marcus’ website, where it had been available for $628.)

Rodriguez’s parents arrived in the US from Cuba in 1956—the same year that Republican candidate Marco Rubio’s parents also emigrated from Cuba—in the tumultuous years of the Cuban Revolution leading up to Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959. Rodriguez was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1961, and has often talked about his parents’ move as a sacrifice that provided him opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. In Cuba, his father worked in a laboratory and his mother studied chemical engineering. In the US, they had to take any work available.

“My mother and father had come to this country with such courage, without any knowledge of the language or the culture,” Rodriguez wrote in an essay (pdf) for former US senator John Edwards’s 2006 book, Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives. He also described the accepting community his family found in immigrant-dominated Newark:

Growing up in this environment instilled in me a great sense that “family” had nothing to do with being a blood relative. Quite the contrary, our neighborhood was made up of mostly Spanish, Cuban, and Italian immigrants at a time when overt racism was the norm and segregation prevailed in the United States. In our neighborhood, despite customs elsewhere, all of these cultures came together in great solidarity and friendship. It was a close-knit community of honest, hardworking immigrants who extended a hand to people who, while not necessarily their own kind, were clearly in need.

It’s certainly not the vision of America Donald Trump has been pushing, and continuing to win support for on the political right. Rodriguez went on to study at Parsons in New York, and eventually established his own fashion line, which has won raves, including from Vogue editor Anna Wintour. In 2013, Rodriguez married his longtime boyfriend, Thomas Tolan, something that wouldn’t have been possible during most of the Obama administration. (It’s worth noting, too, that the final years of the Obama administration also have included a surprise move by the president to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.)

Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who drew national attention for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, also attended the State of the Union address. Likely by design, she wore a shawl in patterned bands of red, white, and blue, an aesthetic echo of all the red and blue ties on seemingly every male politician in the room.

Somehow, though, the First Lady’s lovely marigold dress, the end product of a common immigrant story, seemed the most American hue of the evening.