News & Politics

Red, White, and Dress Blues: A Night Out at Barack Obama’s Commander-in-Chief Ball

Army Sergeant Margaret H. Herrera called dancing with the President, "the opportunity of a lifetime." Sergeant Elidio Guillen of the Marine Corps said dancing with the First Lady was "an honor and a privilege."

No matter who you are, inaugural galas mean dressing to the nines—but a cursory glance around the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball Tuesday night showed that military women play by different rules of engagement. Here’s a look at what “dress to impress” means to our nation’s troops and how servicewomen add a dose of femininity and style to their ensembles, along with a few words from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

What: The Commander-in-Chief’s Ball, hosted by President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Dr. Jill Biden.

Where: The National Building Museum.

When: Tuesday, January 20, 2009.

Tickets: Guest list only. Tickets were provided free of charge to 2,000 invited guests.

Who: Active-duty and reserve military and their families, 300 wounded warriors from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, families of fallen soldiers, spouses of deployed military. Translation: A sea of navy, white, and black-clad attendees, punctuated by tuxes and jewel-toned ball gowns.

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Just a few hours after taking oath, President Obama—arguably the world’s biggest celebrity at the moment—gave 2,000 American military personnel and their families star treatment. The evening’s theme, “Renewing America’s Promise,” hit home with a “purple unit,” or joint crowd. Attendees danced and sang along to performers Bon Jovi, Smokey Robinson, Josh Groban, and Jordin Sparks, who rounded out a program with appearances by the President and Vice President and their wives.

Women from all branches of the military donned mess dress (a more formal style of attire, as opposed to service dress), and opted for white collared shirts over the informal colored counterpart. “You basically wear your resume on your chest,” one Navy Lieutenant remarked, pointing out that medals explain who you are, the pin denotes what you do, and sleeve stripes tell what you make. Acceptable accessories included one pair of stud earrings (most women prefer diamond ones), one bracelet, and one ring, though an engagement ring and wedding band can be worn together on the same finger. The majority of women opted to put their hair up in a twisted or braided bun and some chose a French braid—nothing too “faddish” is allowed. Hair cut above the bottom of the collar was worn down, and nary a hat was in sight. Younger women steered clear of the Navy’s black-velvet tiara (“It dates you,” one woman explained, adding, “It’s like 1980 called; they want their tiara back.”) The classic black patent-leather pump (two-inch heel with a rounded toe) finished off most ensembles.

Women said the challenge is to feel feminine in a uniform that they feel doesn’t do them justice. They test the limits of regulation by lengthening the side slit on the uniform long skirt. They favor short jackets paired with high-waisted long skirts, a forgiving combination that highlights a woman’s figure and turns heads. When given the choice to wear a ball gown (a personal choice for military women not attending the event in an official capacity­—say, for a servicewoman who attends the ball as her husband’s guest), many women do.

The tone of the night was much less formal than the dress code would suggest. President Obama loosened things up by polling troops from Chicago on their loyalty to the White Sox versus Cubs in a chat via satellite. One member from the remote Task Force Lightening announced, “All I want is for someone to go out and dance for me when they play the electric slide.” Vice President Joe Biden joked, “I may not be able to dance, but I got a hell of an eye,” as his wife Jill entered the ballroom in a stunning red floor-length gown. Attendees took off their jackets to dance, revealing the boldly colored backs of their tuxedo shirts and button-ups, called “party shirts,” some of which even boasted a multi-colored depiction of the bearer’s name in Korean. And even Jon Bon Jovi’s bow tie was askew.

President Obama’s smile was never so wide as when he danced with Michelle to a recording of Etta James’ classic “At Last,” and the President and his wife stole dances with Sergeant Margaret H. Herrera of the U.S. Army and Sergeant Elidio Guillen of the U.S. Marine Corps, respectively. Chants of “O-BA-MA!” accompanied the couple’s exit as Michelle’s white train slid out of view. The President highlighted Michelle’s dedication to the unique needs of military families and told attendees that he has “no greater honor or responsibility than serving as your commander-in-chief.” And if the endless whoops, whistles, and cheers from the ballroom floor were any indication, these men and women are happy to serve under him.

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