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Michelle Obama chooses white ball gown

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SAMANTHA CRITCHELL | January 20, 2009 11:24 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama celebrated her husband's inauguration Tuesday night wearing a white chiffon, one-shoulder gown covered in fluffy appliques and beading that will now become part of fashion history.

Designed by 26-year-old Jason Wu, much loved in the fashion world but otherwise not well known, the gathered-skirt gown was surprising for its reserve given Michelle Obama's love of jewel tones and sleek silhouettes. Yet it was unconventional, too, exposing her much-remarked-upon, well-toned arms.

The gown's slight train swirled pleasingly and her shoulder-sweeping earrings picked up the gown's sparkle as she and President Barack Obama danced the evening's first dance at the Neighborhood Ball at Washington's Convention Center.

"First of all, how good-looking is my wife?" the president asked a cheering crowd.

The gown will be donated to the Smithsonian, according to tradition, the first lady's spokeswoman said.

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, wore a red strapless gown.

Obama wore a white bow tie with a single-vent, notch-collar tuxedo and an American flag pinned to its lapel.

The fashion industry has anxiously looked to the election of Obama for months, embracing his wife as an emblem and ambassador of modern style, who wears clothes from young designers as well as mainstream American retailers.

Earlier in the day, Michelle Obama won applause from style-watchers for the sparkling yellow sheath dress with matching coat by Cuban-born American designer Isabel Toledo that she wore to the swearing-in and parade.

The first lady's selection of Wu, who has only shown a collection since 2006, and Toledo, who had a short stint at Anne Klein but is considered relatively avant-garde, demonstrates one of the reasons she has fascinated the fashion world.

"Her support means so much to designers who can't afford to advertise," said Nicole Phelps, executive editor at Style.com.

Wu, who according to his Web site is just 26, said he sewed the dress himself as late as December. He said he sent sketches to Obama at the suggestion of Ikram Goldman, who owns the Ikram boutique in Chicago where Michelle Obama has been known to shop.

He did not know she had selected the dress until she appeared in it, he said.

"It's soft, feminine, but powerful; I wanted to convey all that in a dress," he said. "I wanted it to look like a sign of hope."

Toledo had much the same message with her lemongrass-colored day ensemble.

"I didn't want a traditional blue or red," she said. "That color has sunshine in it. I fell in love with it. So did she."

At the same time, the first lady chose to support non-mainstream designers, she also selected gloves for the daytime ceremonies from catalog and mall retailer J. Crew _ a typical and admired high-low mix.

"What's so powerful about Michelle Obama is we all see ourselves in her," said red-carpet and magazine stylist Mary Alice Stephenson. "She's a modern woman who is fashionable and even flamboyant in her style and she is still taken seriously."

Her ball look also captured her ability to give a nod to tradition at the same time she breaks first lady rules.

Both Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan wore white to inaugural balls, said Phelps. But she is the first to expose her arms since Regan did.

The Obama girls also looked proper on the podium during the day, but still looked like little girls.

Malia, 10, wore a double-breasted periwinkle-blue coat with a blue-ribbon bow at the waist, and Sasha, 7, had on a pink coat with orange scarf and satin belt. Their coats were from Crewcuts by J. Crew.

"What I recognized more than anything from our new first lady and Hillary (Rodham Clinton) and everyone else is that everyone was fresh," said fashion designer Kai Milla, wife of Stevie Wonder and an invited guest to the swearing-in ceremony.

And style-watchers expect much more of the same.

"She's off to an auspicious start," said Hamish Bowles, Vogue magazine's European editor-at-large who curated the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute exhibit on Jackie Kennedy in 2001, speaking of her day look.

"Mrs. Obama's choice today was appropriate, dignified and elegant, but it also had a considerable element of fashion panache," he added. "She's finding great American talent."