Call her tainted by her husband’s legacy. Or forgotten because she seemed to be the shy, retiring type. But during her five years and eight months in the White House, Pat Nixon exhibited a sense of style that helped American women feel good about themselves.
In 1972, at the age of 60, she was the cover model for Ladies’ Home Journal. She wore red embroidered kimono-style dress for the cover shot. There were plenty of belted outfits on the fashion spread inside the magazine, too. And even though she was nearly always seen in public wearing a dress or a skirt (rumor was that Richard Nixon did not like women in pants), she modeled several stylish pants suits in the spread. In the era of the mini-skirt, she wore her dresses just above the knee, but she maintained a tailored look that conveyed a stylish conservatism that was in keeping with her image.
One thing Pat was not conservative about was color. She wore a varied palette of vivid hues – pinks, turquoises, deep blues, yellows, and greens. She had a complexion that allowed her to wear a variety of colors across the warm/cool spectrum, all of which looked good on her.
In the summer of 2014, I had the privilege of seeing Pat Nixon’s 1969 inaugural gown when it was on display as part of a special exhibit at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (in West Branch, Iowa). The gown was a standout among many standouts. Made of silk satin in a vivid mimosa yellow, the gown’s long-sleeved waist length jacket was embroidered in gold and silver metallic thread and encrusted with turquoise, purple and silver Austrian crystals. The designer was Karen Stark of Harvey Berin, an American couturier noted for adapting French fashions to American tastes. Stark had also been a favorite of Lady Bird Johnson.
Pat Nixon’s choice of color also conveyed her own sense of purpose: Yellow is a color that is considered unifying, and she was, although many do not realize this, one who worked to bring people together.
Mamie Eisenhower’s successor in the White House was Jacqueline Kennedy, and in the wake of Kennedy’s glamor, Mamie was quickly forgotten as the fashion trendsetter that she actually was. (And, besides, how does the old-fashioned name “Mamie” compete with the classy-sounding and French-spelled “Jacqueline”?)But in the beginning of the 1950s, the fifty-six year old first lady quickly established her bona fides with American women with her stylishness, her use of accessories, and her signature color. “Mamie pink” was one of the most popular colors for women’s clothing during the eight years of the Eisenhower Administration (1953-1961). The color was bright. It was feminine. And it had a positive psychological impact on an American public that was anxious to put two wars behind it and get back to a sense of normalcy.
Mamie should also be remembered for her support of American designers. The gown she wore for the 1953 inauguration was designed by Nettie Rosenstein. Rosenstein began her career in the 1920s by designing private label brands for department stores. As the popularity of her fashions grew, other designers encouraged Rosenstein to develop her own label. By the early 1950s, she operated a successful fashion house under her own name. One of her employees was Judith Leiber, who designed the bag that Mamie carried at the inaugural (see photo above left). Rosenstein designed a beautiful rose damask evening gown worn by Mamie at a 1957 state dinner at the British Embassy. Mamie bought both off-the-rack and couturier from American designers throughout her White House years.
Grace Coolidge entered the White House in August, 1923, when her husband, Calvin Coolidge, became president on the death of Warren G. Harding. Even as the wife of the vice-president, Grace had gained a reputation as a fashion icon. Slender and athletic, her build was perfect for the slimmed-down, relaxed, and drop-waisted flapper styles that had become popular in the 1920s. She wore sleeveless and V-necked dresses, raised her hemlines, and showcased the latest fashions.
Grace was an ebullient and outgoing woman, in contrast to her highly taciturn husband, and her choice of color and cut reflected her extroverted personality. Her official portrait shows her wearing a bright red, sleeveless evening gown, and she is posed with her white collie, named Rob Roy as a jab at the prohibitionists of her day. Two of her dresses on display at the Smithsonian reveal her willingness to wear a variety of colors and fabrics. One dress is a brown chiffon and lace, shot through with metallic threads. An evening gown of Grace’s is variegated shades of blue satin trimmed with dark blue sequins and gold glass beads. No single designer is associated with Grace. Her personal popularity and her varied wardrobe did much to democratize fashion during her White House years.
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 iswearing 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.