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Knit Together – The Sisterhood of First Lady Knitters

Frances Cleveland was an avid knitter and led the national organization, The Needlework Guild, as its president for nearly twenty years. When her son, Richard, defended Whitaker Chambers in court, Frances sat in the visitors’ section and knit during the trial. Ida McKinley, who tragically lost both of her children before they reached adulthood, spent hours knitting booties and children’s clothing items to be given to her friends’ children. Edith Roosevelt, a close friend of Frances’s, was also a member of the Guild, but she was not quite as ambitious as her predecessor. Edith was only president of her local chapter. Florence Harding, as a senator’s wife, joined with the army of knitters who made socks, pajamas, and caps for the soldiers fighting in World War I. Grace Coolidge was an avid knitter, and even contributed patterns to women’s magazines.

Grace Coolidge with her knitting.
Lou Henry Hoover, likewise, was a dedicated knitter. She created a complex pattern for a baby blanket that was double-knitted on each side. Eleanor Roosevelt was frequently photographed with her knitting on her lap. In most cases, these women knit not for themselves, but to create gifts and or to donate work to charity. (The mission of the Needlework Guild was to create one new garment each year and then provide it to other organizations, such as the American Red Cross, when the need arose.) We haven’t seen any recent first ladies with knitting in their laps, which is surprising, considering its renewed popularity. And it’s not just an “old lady’s” pursuit. Many young women have found joy in getting together to knit and talk. Perhaps knitting will eventually make a comeback at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and revive what once was a tradition among our presidential spouses.

Pat Nixon – The Unlikely First Lady Fashionista

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.

Pat Nixon in a colorful pink dress
Pat Nixon in a colorful pink dress

Frances Cleveland and the Bustle

It was a hot, slow, lazy week of July 4, 1887, in Washington, DC, and a couple of newspapermen (and they all were, with the tiniest of exceptions, newspapermen), were up to mischief in the newsroom. “What can we write about?” they mused, pondering the fact that the president and his young, extremely attractive wife were at their farm, Oak View, located out the Tenallytown Road. Congress was gone, and anyone who had anywhere else they could be besides hot, swampy Washington, was nowhere to be found.

“I know!” one very enterprising reporter exclaimed. “Mrs. Cleveland is such great copy! We’ll write a story about her….We’ll say that she’s given up the bustle!”

And so, on July 5th, the nation’s newspapers were abuzz with word out of Washington that the twenty-two year old wife of fifty-year old President Grover Cleveland had set all Washington society aflutter because she had abandoned the bustle. The first lady had driven her buggy from the farm to the White House to meet with friends, so the papers reported, and they were all agog at her “bustle-less” attire. The papers concluded that the fashionable Mrs. Cleveland, who had been the nation’s style-setter since marrying the President thirteen months earlier, on June 2, 1886, would lead all women to abandon the bustle.

As a first-time biographer, and having yet to learn that news can easily be exaggerated, I reported the bustle incident with serious fact in my biography of Mrs. Cleveland. Years later, having learned much more about the challenges of research, and having begun to study first ladies’ fashions, I think the Frances Cleveland and the bustle story is still one worthy of repeating – albeit tongue-in-cheek and with a little more background added to it.

If, indeed, White House visitors found Mrs. Cleveland without a bustle, they may, in fact, have found her wearing a dress with a reduced bustle. The undergarment, which had been more or less a mainstay of women’s fashion since the 1870s, underwent a transformation in the latter part of the 1880s and was reduced in size. By the early 1890s, it disappeared completely from women’s styles as clothing adapted to the more active and streamlined “Gibson Girl” model.

Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth is credited with inventing the bustle. His goal had been to eliminate crinolines, the hooped undergarments that women wore to widen their skirts. Bustles in the 1870s were large and created and “S”-shaped figure, thrusting the bustline forward and the hips backward.  In the 1880s, the bustle was rigid with a folding frame that was believed to support the back and improve women’s health. The bustle was also slowly abandoned as dresses moved from two pieces – a separate bodice and a skirt – to a design known as the princess line, a design attributed to Worth. A “princess dress” was a one-piece dress cut without a waist seam. With such a design, a smaller bustle would have been appropriate.

So, how did the bustle story with Frances Cleveland finally end? According to news reports, she and a close friend went shopping at Washington’s Woodward & Lothrop’s Department Store in September (1887). When the First Lady asked to be shown a bustle, the sales clerk replied: “Why, Mrs. Cleveland, ever since word got out that you had abandoned the bustle, nobody has bought one. We’ve moved them all to the basement! But,” said the enterprising clerk, “if you would like to see one, I’d be happy to go down there and get them for you.”

Frances supposedly turned to her companion and said, “Well, if they say I’ve quit wearing the bustle, then I guess that’s what I need to do.”

Frances Cleveland in 1886 with gown and bustle.
Frances Cleveland in 1886 with gown and bustle.

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.

Forgotten First Lady Fashionistas

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 Lady_Bird_Suitwas 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 oLbetty_ford1f 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.