Speaking of Style: First Lady Fashion

| By JeanAnn Taylor |

When I began writing this piece I had no idea how much fun it would be to learn more about our First Ladies. We generally remember them from one formal photo, often taken at an older age. Of course, these stiff photos can’t express their colorful and sometimes scandalous stories. Their struggles, successes, love and loss were not so different from our own. Most of the First Ladies brought a little drama to the White House with their unconventional and individual personalities. While many of them were not accepted in the beginning, their legacy adds to the fabric of our nation.

Five First Ladies. Source: Wikipedia

I’ve visited the Smithsonian Institution a few times and I never miss the opportunity to view the First Ladies Collection. The gowns quietly depict our country’s history in silhouette, color, and texture. The inaugural gown is the First Lady’s opportunity to debut and define her personal style as the president’s wife. Helen Taft, in 1909, initiated the tradition of donating inaugural gowns to the museum. In the early years, the gowns were simply dropped off. Now, there is a formal presentation celebrating the First Lady and the Smithsonian.

In 1789, the wealthy Martha Washington became our first First Lady. Mrs. Washington had a deep understanding of fashion. She realized that her clothing not only made a statement of her personal style, she also influenced our very young nation. While she was publicly perceived as a modest and matronly dresser, she enjoyed a little flair from time to time. A romantic quote from her George was, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time nor distance can change.” On her wedding day, she wore purple silk shoes under her gown, quietly expressing her daring and eclectic personality.

Dolley Madison (1809) was a socialite who enjoyed making an impression with her opulent style. Her choice of a buff-colored velvet inaugural gown with pearls and a feather-accented turban was considered provocative. Her extravagant style included throwing lavish receptions and partaking of snuff.

Julia Tyler (1844) enjoyed the spotlight as a fashionista and socialite. She was the first First Lady to intentionally seek out publicity for personal promotion. She was known for her youthful beauty and ornate dressing. She was also the first to dance in public in the White House.

Harriet Lane (1857) served as First Lady for her uncle, President Buchanan. Her fashion influence began immediately when she wore a scandalous low-cut gown with flowers running down her chest and across her hips to the inauguration. She was the first First Lady to adopt a social cause. She worked to improve the living conditions in Native American reservations.

Contrary to President Lincoln’s wishes, his wife Mary dressed in extravagant, expensive gowns. Her personal seamstress ensured that each gown fit perfectly and reflected the highest fashion of the day – low-cut, full-skirted, and accessorized with an elaborate headdress. (1861)

The Christian Temperance Union was scandalized in 1886 when Frances Cleveland began wearing gowns that revealed her bare neck, arms and shoulders. The ladies of the church rallied against her, but there were far more who followed her style.

Mamie Eisenhower made her statement with the color pink. In 1953, she wore a pink inauguration gown adorned with 2000 rhinestones. She completed her look with matching gloves and clutch. She was nicknamed the “First Lady of Pink” for her intense love of the pretty color, and she is credited with influencing the pink craze, which became a national sensation during the 1950s. In addition to pink clothing, pink kitchen appliances, bathroom tiles, and living room furniture were all the rage. Mrs. Eisenhower was an elegant lady whose style included both high- and low-end clothing, pearls, charm bracelets and little fitted hats. Many American women identified with her feminine signature style.

Never in the history of First Ladies has there been a style icon like Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1961, Mrs. Kennedy defined style, elegance and class. Her taste created trends that still influence designers today. Pearls, pillbox hats, and printed scarves were popularized by this poised-to-perfection lady. She had the courage and confidence to dress in the way that expressed her true self.

Fashion took a back seat in 1977 with Rosalynn Carter. Her focus was on policies that represented her interests. Her style was simple, clean, and frugal.

Nancy Reagan brought glamor back to the White House in 1981. Her signature style was classic and feminine whether she was wearing a tailored suit or an Oscar de la Renta gown. She frequently wore her favorite color dubbed “Reagan Red.” According to designer James Galanos, she dressed in “American style.”

You simply can’t think “pantsuit” without having visions of Hillary Clinton come into your mind. However, in 1993, she wore a beautiful violet lace gown to her husband’s first inauguration. While her pantsuit was a frequent news story during her failed 2016 presidential election, Mrs. Clinton is actually known more for causing a stir with her hair. As she said, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.”

In 2009 Michelle Obama wore a gorgeous, one-shoulder, draped, embroidered, white chiffon gown to her husband’s first inauguration, giving designer Jason Wu instant fame. Mrs. Obama has been derided for wearing sleeveless sheaths during inclement weather and she refused to wear panty hose when visiting The Queen; however, her style is modern and confident. She has worn everything from J. Crew to Donatella Versace. She frequently wears feminine and fashionable knee-length floral dresses. From viewing a gazillion photos of her, I came to the conclusion that the impact she has made on fashion these past eight years is: Never be afraid to stand out in a crowd. Wear whatever you want. Make it big, bold and bright. And, never underestimate the power of prints.

We now have a new First Lady, Melania Trump. Melania was born in Yugoslavia where her mother worked as a pattern maker for children’s clothing. At the age of 18, Melania signed a contract with a modeling agency in Italy. She is not only beautiful, she speaks five languages. In 1996 she came to America where she met Donald Trump. Mrs. Trump is elegant, graceful, and like many other FLOTUS’s, she will influence fashion for years to come. By the time you read this, we will have seen the gown Mrs. Trump wears to her husband’s inauguration. I’m sure it will be stylish and stunning.

The legacy of our First Ladies exemplifies the importance of defining our own personal style. While many First Ladies have been criticized, even ostracized for their nonconforming lifestyle and ways of thinking, we can admire them for remaining true to themselves. When we take this initiative, we can courageously walk through our lives with confidence and contentment.


JeanAnn Taylor is a style expert and home organizer. She can be reached at jeananntaylor119@gmailcom.

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