By Laura Trask
In a few short days, we will be focused on the election and who will be leading our country for the next four years. After the long campaign trail has come to an end and the votes are all counted and decision 2012 is made, we can retreat to our non-partisan corners, sit back and relax and focus on something a bit more entertaining … like what and who the first lady (new or incumbent) will be wearing. Not just that one Cinderella moment, at the inaugural ball, but what her fashion identity will be and the impact that she will have. It’s clear that past first ladies have always had a strong influence on how women of this country have dressed.
So looking back on the past 223 years, just when and with whom did this fashion and the first lady affair begin? Who were the standouts and the who were the forget-abouts? Of course, every first lady has brought her own sense of style to the White House, some having more of an impact on fashion and quite often on politics than others, whether they were aware of it at the time or not.
Starting with the first First Lady Martha Washington, who showed her patriotic American pride from the get-go wearing “homespun” clothing instead of British designers, which, considering we had just won the Revolutionary War, was simply not an option. She became the first to champion the cause “Wear American,” a concept that is as important today as it obviously was in the beginning.
Not far behind Martha Washington was Dolley Madison who by all accounts was the first fashionista of the White House. Dolley, who started out as the official White House hostess for Thomas Jefferson, dressed in smart Empire-waisted dresses which gave way to lots of cleavage. This style oddly enough was a throw back to the monarchy, which seems in direct conflict with Martha’s agenda. But the monarchy was still a symbol of legitimate power and Dolley knew that dressing as the monarchy did gave the country the confidence that we would hold as a nation, which was exactly what the public wanted and needed at the time. Dolley also was known for wearing turbans embellished with birds of paradise feathers, proving she had her own trailblazing style. She was so beloved that she would become a very tough act for the next first ladies to follow!
In a group of 46 power-packing women, there is bound to be one who gets a bit carried away with her shopping privileges, or putting it in today’s psychological vernacular, is a shopaholic!! I was surprised to find that the first lady of overspending was Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln would take a private rail car to New York and go on shopping sprees with unlimited credit given to her by the department store. This was in very bad taste considering the Civil War was going on and her countrymen were dying on battlefields in record numbers. Her shopping did not go unreported and caused her husband great embarrassment. By her own admission, Mary spent $27,000 when Abe’s annual salary was only $25,000. And just like anything we do to excess, there are consequences to pay, and sadly Mary got hers when her husband died and she was left with severe debt. She hosted the “Mrs. Lincoln’s Second-Hand Clothing Sale”, which was a flop. Lesson learned: beware the retail therapy!
First lady fashion-watching became a national pastime with Jackie Kennedy and the advent of color television. Her fresh, uncluttered elegance — which she drew from French designer Givenchy and then had copied by American designer Cassini — started a retail movement so strong that it continues to this day. The pill box hat might be hard to pull off at girls’ night
out, but we are still wearing Capri style pants and sheath dresses. Her influence was enormous and has proven timeless.
Nancy Reagan brought her Hollywood style to the White House and was ready to reign! Nancy had that 80’s glammed up thing going on — lots of ruffles. She loved to party, throwing 55 state dinners, each requiring its own designer gown (and being a former actress, she was always camera ready: hair and makeup, check!) Nancy will always be associated with the color red, I believe there is even a shade named in her honor.
By the time Michelle Obama came on the scene as first lady, fashion had been on a bit of a hiatus. Michelle brought it back with her youthful, feminine touches.
No matter who wins on Tuesday, the world will be watching to see who and what she will be wearing, and what new trends she might set … but history will decide whether she is a standout or a forget-about!