WASHINGTON — Spring is in the air but that wasn't obvious from the attire at Tuesday's White House state dinner. Many women wrapped themselves in shades of black, deep grey and blue, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the guest of honor.

"You look lovely tonight," President Barack Obama said to Merkel as she arrived with her husband, Joachim Sauer. Merkel traded in her customary pant suit for a black gown with short sleeves and an off-center neckline.

First lady Michelle Obama wore a cream-colored, sleeveless gown with vertical silver accents and a short train. It was designed by Naeem Kahn, who also made the gown she wore to a state dinner for India in November 2009.

For the first time, the Obamas were serving dinner al fresco, underneath the stars in the Rose Garden, just steps from the Oval Office. The fare featured tuna tartare and petite filet. Grammy Award-winner James Taylor was on tap for the entertainment.

The garden's plush lawn was covered in protective flooring and gray and white carpet. More than 200 guests were to dine at a mix of long and round tables covered with white and silver sequined linens topped with green-and-yellow centerpieces of calla lilies, orchids and other flowers.

On the menu? The tuna, which came from Hawaii, was being paired with rye crisps and the petite filet tol be served with Maryland crab ravioli. The salad came from the first lady's garden, dressed in vinaigrette made of White House honey. For dessert, the pastry chef whipped up apple strudel from a recipe that's said to be a twist on traditional German strudel. It was made with farmer's cheese from Vermont.

Members of the National Symphony Orchestra were also performing

This dinner had another unusual aspect besides the outdoors: Obama was presenting Merkel with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he was unable to give her earlier this year. The star-shaped medal is one of the nation's highest honors for a civilian. Few non-Americans have received it.

Obama said Tuesday that Merkel deserved it because of her remarkable career.

Merkel grew up in communist East Germany, living a life devoid of many freedoms until the Berlin Wall that divided her country was brought down in 1989. She was in her 30s. Six years ago, she became the first woman and first East German to become chancellor of a unified Germany.

"She represents the unification of Europe through her own life story and the capacity to overcome the past and point towards a brighter future," Obama said at a joint news conference with Merkel at his side.

There was very little color in the attire of most of the women arriving for dinner to go along with the springy colors of the Rose Garden. One notable exception was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who came through in a white, two-piece outfit.

"Very old," she pronounced it. Pelosi was one of the few who stopped to talk to reporters allowed to watch the guest arrivals. Most of the guests sprinted by the reporters, even the usually talkative politicians.

The black-tie dinner for Merkel capped a day of all-out diplomatic outreach that was carefully orchestrated to highlight Germany's growing role in world affairs and its importance as a U.S. partner.

It began with a 19-gun salute on the South Lawn and included meetings with Obama and his advisers, the news conference in the East Room and a State Department lunch.

Merkel is the first European leader to receive such treatment from Obama.

At lunch, she presented Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton with a framed copy of a German newspaper photo of the two in pantsuits — showing them only from the waist down. The caption asked: "Which one is Merkel and which one is Clinton?"

On the back of the news page and of the framed picture, was the full photo showing Merkel and Clinton and their similar tastes in clothing.

Associated Press writer Nancy Benac contributed to this report.


White House guest list: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/06/07/expected-attendees-tonights-state-dinner

Menu and other details of dinner: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/germany_state_visit.pdf