DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

From Dolley to Michelle: A Look at the First Ladies of Fashion

Michelle Obama in a Tracy Reese design.
When a new president assumes his duties at The White House, his wife automatically becomes the First Lady of the land. This means she shares an important political function with her husband.

But in addition to her political stands, she also assumes an unofficial title of First Lady of Fashion. What she wears and her style is followed and commented on. If she uses a particular designer, the popularity of that designer can soar. She can institute new looks or lead others to be discontinued.

The unofficial title of First Lady of Fashion has been thrust upon presidential wives since the 19th century days of the quite-fashionable Dolley Madison. The title holds even greater import today. In some circles, the question of whether Michelle Obama should wear bangs was as debated as the idea of Middle East bombing.

Recently, TV fashion guru Tim Gunn moderated a panel at the National Archives entitled Style and Influence: First Ladies' Fashions. The discussion, co-sponsored by The White House Historical Association, also included:
  • Lisa Graddy, Smithsonian curator of American women's political history which includes the Museum of American History's First Ladies collection.
  • Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology
  • Tracy Reese, a designer whose designs have been worn by Mrs. Obama
Gunn, Reese, Steele, and Graddy discuss First Ladies and their fashion 
Gunn began the 90-minute discussion with the question - why do we care so much about what the First Lady wears?

The panel agreed that Americans saw First Ladies as representing the style, stability, and value of a presidential administration. "In a way, the American public is like a jury. The people judge what they like," Graddy said.

Of course, the emphasis changes depending on the person. No First Lady had a bigger impact on fashion and style than Jacqueline Kennedy. "Women's Wear Daily covered her just like a war," Steele said.

Even though she was much admired for her sense of style, Mrs. Kennedy was criticized by some for spending too much on fashion. "A First Lady can't win. There is a thread that runs through American history that fashion is unnecessary and elitist," said Graddy. "When amounts were reported on how much money she was spending (on clothing), Mrs. Kennedy replied 'I would have to be buying sable underwear to spend that much.'"

Graddy noted that the aim of a stylish First Lady should be to choose clothing that is "appropriate for her age and her activity."

Sometimes a fashion statement can have a lasting impact. "Nancy Reagan changed red from the color of the Communist Revolution to the color of the Republican Party," Graddy explained.

Michelle Obama is now the spouse in the spotlight. Reese, who has designed outfits for Mrs. Obama, says most people give the First Lady high marks for style. "She wears what she likes and knows what looks good on her. She's a woman of the moment," Reese said. "She's having a huge impact on the fashion industry. I think people like to see her wearing something they could buy. And she wears clothing beautifully. She's someone people are always excited to see. The fashion block is a really, really tough crowd, but she won them over. She is a modern woman who is fit and active and is trying to help people get fit and active".

Steele believes that there will always be a focus on the fashion of First Ladies. "There is a role (in politics) for emphasizing the things you believe in. Clothing is one way to demonstrate that," she said.

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