Merkel tries to downplay fuss over opera gown

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to brush aside an international stir over the plunging neckline on a dress she wore to the opera in Norway last week in her first public comments on the furore.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the inauguration of the Oslo Opera House April 12, 2008. REUTERS/Bjorn Sigurdson/Scanpix

Merkel had swapped her usual loose-fitting suits and neck-high tops for an eye-catching black evening gown when she attended the inauguration of Norway’s new national opera house in Oslo on Saturday.

Pictures of Merkel and her ample cleavage as she sat next to Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg made front page news in Germany and across Europe. Merkel tried to play down the fuss in a television interview late on Thursday.

“It’s simply due to the fact that in Germany a woman is chancellor,” Merkel told ZDF television when asked about the all the attention surrounding her low-cut, tight-fitting dress.

“In any event, there certainly wouldn’t be a discussion like this with a man (as chancellor),” she added with a smile -- this time clad in a loose-fitting black top and baggy red suit.

Merkel, 53, has been going through a gradual makeover in office. With the help of Germany’s top hairstylist, she replaced her pageboy style haircut before winning election in 2005 with a more modern and dynamic-looking wind-blown hairstyle.

Her feminine appearance in Norway also stood in sharp contrast to conservative unisex look -- black trousers and boxy jackets -- that she is known for at home.

“The chancellor was rather surprised that her evening dress caused such a commotion,” her spokesman Thomas Steg had said on Monday in a first futile attempt to put an put an end to the mostly favourably public discussion about her attire.

“That wasn’t the chancellor’s intention,” Steg assured reporters, noting that she had nevertheless received many compliments. “But what can you do if the world has nothing more important to do than to talk about an evening gown?”

“Deep Merkel” was the headline next to a picture in the daily newspaper Gunes in Turkey, where the new-look Merkel was in many newspapers. Hurriyet called it “Merkel’s opera cleavage” while Milliyet and Sabah also reported on her opera outing.

“The chancellor’s decollete,” read the headline in Sabah. It called it “bewitching” and said it had “amazed everyone.”

In Italy, the country’s leading daily Corriere della Sera published a photo of Merkel’s plunging neckline and said she had “sparkled” at the Oslo event.

Merkel’s dress had “flabbergasted” the Germans, who were more used to her off-the-shelf trouser suits that were “casually thrown together”, news agency Il Velino said on its web site.

“Merkel’s weapons of mass distraction” was the headline in the Daily Mail in London.

“Oh, Angela!” wrote the French newspaper Le Matin under a headline “Le decollete plongeant d’Angela Merkel” (Angela Merkel’s plunging cleavage).