Women’s Wear Daily
04.25.2014
fashion
fashion

All the Presidents' Women

WWD has had a long-standing fascination — some might say obsession — with First Lady fashion.

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Two sketches of Eleanor Roosevelt’s dresses from Arnold Constable & Co

Mamie Eisenhower’s dresses, 1957

Photo By WWD Archive

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1919: While she shops at Worth in Paris, WWD notes that Edith Bolling Wilson is quite a fashionista and that “She had always preferred French gowns.”

 

1921: Referring to Florence Harding: “She is for Americanism—even with clothes.”

 

1925: Describing Grace Coolidge: “She had the feminine eye for a bargain and thoroughly enjoys making a ‘good buy.’”

 

1929: Much is made of Lou Hoover’s color choices and conservative fashion taste—especially the plum-toned velvet gown she wore for the inauguration. WWD describes her reserved approach as a concern and notes that she “sanctions a skirt length which is fairly long and which hangs to give a straight silhouette.” But her lovely sense of occasion is evident in the gardenias she chooses for the event.

 

1937: Eleanor Roosevelt triggers WWD’s first photograph of inaugural outfits with two models, one in an “Eleanor Red,” sheer silk crepe frock by Arnold, Constable & Co., the other in a “victory blue” crepe dress for the swearing in. She believes in extreme simplicity and economy and when merchants are miffed, in response, she explains, “I favor people spending what they have to spend and no more.”

 

1945: Bess Truman wears a $35-a-yard antique brocade fabric for a dress and another “heavenly blue” number by Washington designer Madame Agasta. WWD reports that besides her custom frocks, Truman often buys “ready-made fashions.”

 

1953: Coverage of Mamie Eisenhower strikes a fun-loving tone, observing that “Mrs. Ike likes clothes—she wears small hats, full-skirted dresses and many blues.”

 

1961: No one evokes such awe and has given more significance to the possibilities of a First Lady’s beauty, grace and style than Jacqueline Kennedy, whose every move is covered by WWD long before and after President John F. Kennedy’s time in the White House.

 

1963: When the Lyndon B. Johnson White House invites reporters for a briefing to view sketches for first daughter Luci Baines’ wedding, but insists on an embargo until the day itself, WWD boycotts the briefing. WWD reporters get the information on their own and run a sketch the Thursday before the wedding—much to the chagrin of President Johnson, who bans the paper from the nuptials—and from its press conferences. WWD counters: “As the White House well knows, we decline all invitations to embargoed briefings.” News organizations around the country come to WWD’s defense and the paper is eventually reinstated in the White House press room.

 

1969: Pat Nixon, who nixes the mini and buys the new Longuette, has all the designers come to her and bill everything through the stores. As for her style, says Oscar de la Renta, “I don’t feel Mrs. Nixon has any impact on fashion. She has no interest in promoting American fashion.” However, in November 1969—after almost a year in the White House—Geoffrey Beene tells WWD, “I think she looks much better today. It’s a matter of adjusting herself to the White House and relaxing a bit more. She has a great figure and carries herself well. I like the way she looks in my clothes.”

 

1974: Betty Ford, a former model, is perfect for her fashion choices: Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Diane von Furstenberg. Buying “not too expensive” American designers is her way to whip inflation. “I like her informality,” says Calvin Klein, “and as the wife of the President, I’d like her to see her dress with a bit more daring.” When WWD scores the first significant national interview with Ford, other press organizations are outraged.

 

1977: A lot of press-related issues swirl around WWD about Rosalynn Carter, who wears a six-year-old chiffon gown by Jason Jack Moses for her inauguration ball—not a popular decision in the fashion industry. “If a First Lady makes a point of being a fashion influence,” says Ralph Lauren, “and she has a good look and style, it can have a strong impact on the industry.” On the other hand, WWD gets an unsolicited call from the First Lady’s office asking that the paper kill a story about her $4,000 shopping spree on Seventh Avenue.

 

1981: Nancy Reagan is the first First Lady since Jackie to be celebrated—and scorned—for her overt love of fashion and affinity for European design. While her thoroughbred chic fuels retail sales across the country and drives business up at Martha and Lord & Taylor, there is quite a brouhaha over her accepting gifts and loaned merchandise worth thousands, and her damage-control “wear-now, donate-later” policy. While she frequently wears James Galanos (inaugural ball), Bill Blass and Adolfo, she is criticized for her extravagant entertaining and designer clothing. Ira Neimark, president of Bergdorf Goodman insists, “I’m glad she wears designer clothes, but what she does with them is her business, not mine.” During her husband’s tenure as President, she has WWD hand delivered to the White House each day.

 

1989: While Barbara Bush evidently wants to keep her inauguration attire under wraps, her chosen designer, Arnold Scaasi, feels less of a need for secrecy. In an effort to capitalize on the moment, Scaasi allows WWD into his atelier for a three-page exposé of his work on the inaugural dress. “I think she’ll look wonderfully stylish…people are going to be surprised by how elegant she looks.” But Bush retorts in a later statement to WWD, “My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired wrinkled ladies are tickled pink.”

 

1993: WWD makes headlines everywhere when it runs the first exclusive sketch of Hillary Clinton’s first inaugural gown. Designed by then-unknown Sarah Phillips, the dress features long sleeves and a cascade of purple crystals. Yet, after suffering negative responses to the Phillips ensemble, Clinton turns to Oscar de la Renta for the 1997 inauguration. Although she hopes to surprise the President that night, once again WWD gets the scoop, publishing another exclusive, this time a photo of the precise runway look, minus the final sleeve alterations.

 

2001: WWD gets the exclusive when it runs a sketch of Laura Bush’s first inaugural gown, designed by her favorite Texas designer, Michael Faircloth. In an interview, Faircloth notes, “It took less than 30 seconds for Laura to say ‘yes’ when she saw the sketch, and 100 hours for three women to hand-bead the lace gown.” Yet Bush, like her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, opts for SA favorite Oscar de la Renta for her husband’s second inaugural in 2005, which again becomes a WWD coup when a sketch runs on the front page.

 

2009: Michelle Obama—whose every outfit is discussed by the press—sparks a fashion frenzy like no one since Jackie Kennedy. Her eclectic taste and purported last-minute decisions lend no clue as to whose clothes she will wear and when. So little surprise, after wearing relatively unknown Maria Pinto before the election and her choice of Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu for inauguration events, that she shows up in the following months wearing Zero + Maria Cornejo, Thakoon, Narciso Rodriguez, Michael Kors, Tracy Feith and, the big surprise—J. Crew. But all this is not OK with some on SA—especially the big, established American names—whose clothes the First Lady had not worn, like Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs. De la Renta would later apologize on TV for his earlier critical statement to WWD regarding the First Lady’s visit to Buckingham Palace, “You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater.”

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