More Forgotten First Lady Fashionistas

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.