Forgotten First Lady Fashionistas
Michelle Obama wowed the press and the fashion-conscious public with the stunning Caroline Herrera blue and black creation worn at the state dinner for French president Francois Hollande. The black lace and blue silk creation is now added to the ever-lengthening list of stylish clothes that have the rest of us oohing-and-ahhing over Michelle’s fashion choices. (And note – this is the first dress with sleeves that Michelle has worn to a state dinner.)
Not since Nancy Reagan’s regal reign and her Nancy Reagan Red have we been so enamored with a first lady’s fashion sense. Barbara Bush was a grandmotherly type. She wore what fit well, but her matronly figure didn’t grab our attention, even if her styles were well-tailored and often colorful. Hillary Clinton, well, Hillary Clinton spent her eight years in the White House figuring out what looked good on her. As she wryly observed when she gave her victory speech upon winning her New York senatorial seat: “Six black pants suits later….”
Laura Bush had great taste, too. She toned up and slimmed down during her eight-year tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but her color choices gravitated toward monochromatic tans and browns, not the stuff that really grabs the attention of us closet fashionistas (her ruby red inaugural gown in 2001 long since forgotten).
Then enters Michelle Obama. Color. Cut. Couturier. (And Target and H&M, too.) We adore her style, don’t grouse too much about the price tags, and appreciate that she seems to have democratized fashion (even if she is wearing Jimmy Choo shoes!). The comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy are inevitable.
Jackie has been my generation’s gold standard for first lady fashion. Michelle Obama will likely set the bar for my daughters’ generation. And we will remember very few in between. Unless we look a little closer.
Between Jackie and Nancy, two first ladies deserve attention for their fashion sense. Lady Bird Johnson, 17 years older than Jackie, would be an unlikely pick. But she deserves to be included in the pantheon of stylish first ladies.
Lady Bird had the unenviable position of succeeding Jackie at a time of great tragedy. Not only were we fixated on the lost youth and luster of the Kennedy administration, but it’s kind of hard to put the words glamorous and Johnson Administration together in a sentence. Lady Bird was no beauty, but the truth is, neither was Jackie. But Lady Bird loved beauty, and she understood the importance of being surrounded by beauty. Lady Bird’s yellow satin gown and sable trimmed matching coat radiated warmth and happiness. Not to mention that the gown was created by an American-born designer, John Moore.
Lady Bird’s sense of style was impeccable. Like many of her successors, she lost weight and took advice on how to make the best of her appearance. Her tailored dresses and slacks outfits were always accented with a scarf, a belt, or, since they still wore them in those days, often a hat. Lady Bird did not overtly make a statement with her clothing, as had her predecessor, but she clearly knew that what she wore spoke volumes.
Betty Ford is another first lady who’s sense of style has long been overlooked. Betty had been a model and a buyer for a Michigan department store, and she understood the importance of looking good. Like Lady Bird, Betty wore stylish clothing, often accented with belts, colorful scarves, or tailored with contrast piping at the neck- and seam lines. And, like Lady Bird, she came into the role of first lady on the heels of another national tragedy – the first, and so far, only, resignation of an American president under disgrace. Betty’s flair and cheerfulness was reflected in her clothing choices. Her palette ranged from baby blue, the color of the gown in her official portrait, to the burnt orange so popular in the 70s. She wore it all well. Betty celebrated American fashion, and received an award from Parsons The New School for Design in recognition of her style.