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Michelle Obama returns to Jason Wu for inaugural gown

One of Washington, D.C.'s best-kept secrets was finally revealed Monday night, when Michelle Obama arrived at the inaugural ball in a gown by a familiar designer: Jason Wu.

Unlike the frothy white, one-shouldered Wu number she wore to the 10 balls in 2009, the blazing, ruby velvet burnout dress with a chiffon overlay was streamlined and sexy, featuring a slightly nipped waist and a deep V in back. Obama accessorized with Jimmy Choo shoes, a stack of bracelets and a custom Kimberly McDonald diamond ring.

Fashion pundits weren't wowed. "I like the power of red," said Kate Betts, author of "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style" (Clarkson Potter, $35). "It says I'm in charge, but I wanted her to be a little more playful. And it fits her just as badly as the first dress."

In fact, Obama's choice of Wu the first time around catapulted the designer to fame. "She's turning him to an establishment designer," Betts said. "He's like the new Oscar de la Renta." In addition to his pricey designer collection, Wu recently collaborated with Target on a low-priced collection that was a smashing success.

"It's racy for her and she's showing a lot more skin than she usually does," says Robert Verdi, the fashion personality. "I do like this dress a million times better than the other one. The only bad decision was wearing the same designer as she did the last time, because there's so much emerging talent in this country."

The president and first lady started the inaugural day as a fashionable match -- she wore a flared navy silk checked coat and dress by New York designer Thom Browne, he a classic navy suit, pale blue silk tie and a Brooks Brothers overcoat.

The effect? Power couple.

Her ensemble, inspired by a man's silk tie, was custom-designed by Browne, who is best known for his high-fashion, edgy menswear. Browne wasn't sure she was going to wear the outfit until she appeared in it. "It's amazing and one of the most humbling moments, when you know she had so much to choose from," Browne told Women's Wear Daily.

In keeping with her democratic passion for high-low fashion, Obama's outfit also included shoes and a belt from J.Crew, a necklace by Cathy Waterman, and a cropped blue cardigan by Reed Krakoff that she had worn the day before.

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