Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on July 6, 2011
In honor of the Fourth of July, I would like to discuss some of my favorite First Ladies’ dresses and gowns. It would be impossible to discuss the wardrobes of all America’s first ladies, but at least we can look at a few of the most popular or fashionable first ladies’ gowns.
As most of America’s presidents have been in office during the latter half of their life, their respective first ladies have often times been a bit older as well. For this reason, the first five decades of the American presidency did little to influence the fashion scene at the time (Dolley Madison excepted). With this in mind, I am starting this post with a look at Julia Gardiner Tyler, who was the second wife of President John Tyler. His first wife Letitia died while he was in office, and his second bride was the twenty-four year old daughter of a trusted senator. Julia Gardiner was a bit controversial as his wife, since she was younger than one of the President’s own daughters and was known for having a bold, outspoken personality. First Lady Julia had rather royal ideas about what her position as First Lady ought to be, and was often seen parading about Washington in a royal carriage, attended by no less than twelve maids at all times! But in spite of all this frivolity, Mrs. Tyler began the tradition of having “Hail to the Chief” played upon the President’s arrival in a room, and hosted a great number of balls to bring life and warmth back into the White House after years of solemnity prevailing in this residence.
The next First Lady I’d like to discuss is Frances Folsom Cleveland, one of America’s most beloved and fashionable First Ladies. Frances Cleveland was the youngest first lady ever, was the only first lady to be married in the White House building itself, and was also the only first lady to serve two non-consecutive terms in Washington! When her husband, Grover Cleveland was elected for President, Americans assumed the next four years in the White House would be rather dull with this middle-aged bachelor in office. So imagine their surprise when the press announced that the President-elect was engaged to a young lady almost thirty years his junior! Frances Cleveland was just twenty-two years old when she was married in the East Room of the White House, and rose to instant fame as newspapers across the country detailed her lovely wedding dress, hairstyle, and appearance. Throughout her two terms as first lady, Mrs. Cleveland received mountains of fan mail and a warm response wherever she traveled.
I had the opportunity to view Frances Cleveland’s original wedding gown in the National History Museum in Washington, D.C. some years ago, but since that time the First Ladies’ Dress Exhibit has been downscaled immensely to preserve the aging garments. So I don’t believe her wedding dress is currently on display, but you can still view dozens of other first ladies’ gowns there!
Jumping forward several decades, we come to First Lady Mamie Doud Eisenhower. Mrs. Eisenhower embodied the fun and light-hearted spirit of the 1950s which Americans adopted in an effort to forget World War II. After the long, gloomy war years, the people of the United States were ready for a change, and Mamie Eisenhower certainly helped to bring that to pass in Washington. Mamie is perhaps best remembered for her favorite color – pink! Her life-long fondness for this color was evident in her choice of inaugural ball gown, a lovely peau de soie silk embroidered with diamente’ beading. But it was not for her dresses alone that Mamie chose pastel pink; her White House residence was soon transformed into a pink paradise with bedroom walls, bath linens, bedspreads, and even the carpets redecorated to display her favorite rosy hue!
Mamie Eisenhower was the perfect First Lady to represent the era, from her fondness for “I Love Lucy” to her full-skirted 50s dresses. When she left the White House, the next First Lady would have big shoes to fill – and did she ever!
First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy – need I say more? I doubt if any First Lady has had such an enormous effect on America’s fashion industry, or left a more indelible image in only a two year term at the White House! Her name is synonymous with “First Lady Fashion”, and it was reported that Mrs. Kennedy even designed some of her own dresses.
The lovely Jacqueline Kennedy transformed popular fashion from the full 1950s silhouette to the slimmer sheath dresses, while inspiring women across the nation to adopt short, bouffant hair styles topped with jaunty pill box hats! Wherever she went, Jacqueline’s dresses were admired and copied at an alarming rate. At 5’8″, she even wore a sheath suit only days after the birth of her son, and no one would have guessed that she’d just had a baby! While her time in the White House was short, she managed to refurbish the two lower levels of the historic mansion to their original beauty, adding classic American art and furniture to the White House collection.
It remained for Nancy Reagan to be the next First Lady to be known for (and often criticised for!) her wardrobe. If Mamie was remembered for pink, then Nancy would certainly be remembered for the color red! Mrs. Reagan’s trim figure was frequently adorned with red silk evening gowns, red wool suits, red gathered skirts, and red ruffled blouses! This former film actress helped bring an elegance back to the White House that had been waning for some years. She designed an exquisite set of White House china, redecorated the living quarters, and hosted sumptuous dinners and parties for ambassadors and Washington politicians. Not surprisingly, her favorite room for entertaining was the Red Room, and on most occasions her attire would blend right in with the bold colored walls!
Perhaps it was the fact that she wore a $10,000 dress for the 1981 inauguration, or her fondness for receiving evening gowns as gifts from elite designers, but whatever the reason, the press did their best to attack Nancy’s reputation from the moment her husband entered office! I do agree that there is no reason to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a dress that you’ll wear once, especially when there are people around the world who can hardly afford clothing at all! In that respect her wardrobe could be compared to that of Mary Todd Lincoln, who amassed enormous bills for fine clothing, jewelry and furniture during America’s most desperate hour of the Civil War. However, I don’t see any evil with the First Lady being given a dress as a present if someone chooses to do so, and I’ve never heard of Queen Elizabeth or Princess Catherine being scolded for the cost of their wardrobes!
Only a few years before, the media had made fun of Rosalynn Carter for wearing the same gown for her husband’s inauguration that she had twice worn for his gubernatorial inaugurals, and this time around they were complaining that Mrs. Reagan’s wardrobe was too nice! I wonder why Americans can’t simply enjoy their first families the way that England admires the Queen’s… At any rate, Nancy Reagan did in time win the hearts of this country, and today (July 6, 2011), she celebrates her ninetieth birthday!
Since her time in the White House Nancy Reagan has continued to live an active, happy life, and was connected with fashion history once more when she and First Lady Laura Bush hosted the opening of a First Ladies Red Dress exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.