From Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, for the past half-century, the first ladies of the United States have defined American style. And while...
From Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, for the past half-century, the first ladies of the United States have defined American style. And while none approached the role simply as presidential arm candy—often building significant platforms of their own—each woman’s individual take on fashion offered a visual marker of the country's changing style ideals.
Of course we look forward to the day when the outfits we track are being worn by the president, ahem, herself, but until then, we present a look back at the fashion that ruled the White House through the past 10 presidencies.
Long before Michelle Obama established her reputation as a fashion force to be reckoned with, the reigning queen of First Lady style was...
Long before Michelle Obama established her reputation as a fashion force to be reckoned with, the reigning queen of First Lady style was undoubtedly Jackie Kennedy. Nee Bouvier, she was born into, by all estimations, a privileged life (her dad was a stockbroker, her mother, heir to a real estate fortune), which meant polish and glamour were terms she was quite familiar with.
Though Jackie was a longtime devotee of elegant French designers like Chanel and Givenchy, when her husband John F. Kennedy made a bid for the presidency, she began, after much encouragement, to buy American. So began her fabled collaboration with designer Oleg Cassini, the man responsible for crafting (with a lot of guidance from Jackie), her most iconic looks.
Signature: Multi-strand pearl necklace, white gloves, cinched waists, pillbox hats and oversized sunglasses.
Lady Bird Johnson: Through pared-down elegance that favoured function over fashion, she still left an impression during husband Lyndon B....
Lady Bird Johnson: Through pared-down elegance that favoured function over fashion, she still left an impression during husband Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. As Lady Bird once told Time, “I like clothes—I like them pretty, but I want them to serve me, not for me to serve them.”
Signature: Pearl necklace, straw hats, shift dresses.
Though the press often delighted in describing her fashion sense as square, the wife of one of our most infamous presidents was actually quite...
Though the press often delighted in describing her fashion sense as square, the wife of one of our most infamous presidents was actually quite trend-conscious. During her time in the White House at the cusp of the 1970s, Pat Nixon embraced the mini-skirt and was the first incumbent First Lady to appear publicly in pants, indicating a major shift (towards comfort!) in women’s fashion.
No matter what the ensemble, femininity always ruled with Pat. “The Nixons are middle-American people who don’t want to be flash in the pan,” wardrobe mistress Clara Treyz once told Time. “They don’t want to be jet-setty or way out. Mrs. Nixon must be ladylike.” What might be most memorable about Pat’s dressing was her penchant for the color yellow—she liked it so much it was the theme for her daughter Tricia’s wedding and as well as countless of her own White House look during Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Signature: Real floral brooches, the color yellow.
Betty Ford’s legacy might be the hugely popular addiction clinic bearing her name, but her style sensibility was just as remarkable.Natural...
Betty Ford’s legacy might be the hugely popular addiction clinic bearing her name, but her style sensibility was just as remarkable.
Natural elegance and an affinity for fashion started at an early age. After high school, Betty attended the Bennington School of Dance, studying under Martha Graham, before returning to her Grand Rapids home where she supported her family as a fashion coordinator and model for a well-known local department store.
During husband Gerald Ford’s three years in office, Betty was the picture of ‘70s cool in broad collar shirts, belted dresses and suits, and, for formal occasions, long free-form gowns.
Signature: Neck scarves, wide collars, the colors green, orange and red.
Rosalynn Carter is best remembered for one particular dress. Less so for the dress itself (a long blue chiffon gown with golden details and trim...
Rosalynn Carter is best remembered for one particular dress. Less so for the dress itself (a long blue chiffon gown with golden details and trim by Mary Matise for Jimmae) than for the fact that she, gasp, recycled it. The famously frugal first lady wore it both for her husband Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial and presidential inauguration events.
It may have been considered a major fashion misstep (even in the throes of ‘70s-era recession), but was a move entirely in character for the woman who installed her own sewing machine in the White House. Says fashion historian Valerie Steele about the 1977 Dressgate, “I think she was just trying to make a statement about being economical and being ‘just folks.’”
Signature: Belted dresses, drapey or loose silhouettes.
Nancy Reagan’s approach to dressing was in sharp contrast to her predecessor: if Rosalynn Carter aimed to dress like so-called normal folks,...
Nancy Reagan’s approach to dressing was in sharp contrast to her predecessor: if Rosalynn Carter aimed to dress like so-called normal folks, Reagan wanted to dress like a star.
Chalk it up to the fact that before her husband Ronald Reagan stepped into the presidential role he had been on the big screen; she always looked red-carpet-ready. That meant fashion-forward ensembles and gowns by the likes of Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and James Galanos, who designed her stunning, intricately beaded, one-shoulder inaugural creation. Said the designer to the L.A. Times in the early 1980s, “she knew her style very well and it was always simple and elegant.” Elegant yes, simple, probably not—that Galanos gown which, like many other inaugural pieces ended up in the Smithsonian, cost an estimate $22,500.
Signature: Trend-conscious designs, one-shoulder silhouette, the colour red, embellishments galore.
With her halo of short grey curls and warm smile, Barbara Bush exuded a natural grandmotherly quality. And oftentimes her wardrobe did the same...
With her halo of short grey curls and warm smile, Barbara Bush exuded a natural grandmotherly quality. And oftentimes her wardrobe did the same. Covered arms, modest hemlines, flats and pearl necklace-and-earring sets were usually the order of the day except for special events. That’s when the senior Mrs. Bush would trot out floor-sweeping gowns often in a jewel-tone, and always with a major sleeve, like the cobalt draped velvet and satin number by Arnold Scaasi she chose for the biggest event of all: her husband George H. W. Bush’s 1989 presidential inauguration.
Signature: Multi-strand pearl necklaces, flats, modest silhouettes.
The now-former Secretary of State (and reputed future presidential candidate) has always approached dressing and policy-making in a similar...
The now-former Secretary of State (and reputed future presidential candidate) has always approached dressing and policy-making in a similar fashion: sensibly. And, it should be added, unapologetically.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, doesn’t cowtow to fashion critics and is uninterested in passing trends, always dressing however she feels most comfortable. From long before her husband Bill Clinton took office, that has meant tailored pieces in bold colors, eye-catching jewelry and an array of, yes, sometimes questionable hair accessories (her penchant for scrunchies has faced particular public scrutiny).
But her most fashionable accessory may be her attitude. When asked by a moderator in 2010 which designers she preferred, Hillary fired back, “Would you ever ask a man that question?”
Signature: Tailored blazers and pants, statement jewelry, bold colors, hair accessories.
It seemed that Laura Bush always dressed exactly like who she was: a mom, a Texan, an inherently conservative woman. Modesty was always first...
It seemed that Laura Bush always dressed exactly like who she was: a mom, a Texan, an inherently conservative woman. Modesty was always first and foremost, and making a fashion statement was never a priority.
In fact, Laura’s approach was the exact opposite of statement-making: she preferred her wardrobe to not attract attention, always gravitating towards unrevealing silhouettes (the simple collarless suit was a perennial favorite) in quiet pastel or neutral hues (a pop of bright color was rare and often reserved for formal events), and few or no accessories.
Laura’s most memorable fashion moments occurred when she occasionally stepped far out of her comfort zone. A perfect example: the deep ruby Chantilly lace gown by Texas designer Michael Faircloth that she wore for her husband George W. Bush’s first inauguration.
Signature: A pastel palette, collarless suits, Texas designers.
In the annals of First Lady fashion (and, frankly, in a great many other arenas) our current administration has been the most progressive....
In the annals of First Lady fashion (and, frankly, in a great many other arenas) our current administration has been the most progressive. Michelle Obama was the first to wear vintage (a 1950s A-line dress to a 2010 holiday party), the first to choose an inauguration frock by a young, lesser-known American designer (Jason Wu), the first to master the fine art of high and low dressing (she is an avowed fan of all things J.Crew)—and, of course, the first to win immediate and fervent appreciation from the fashion community at large.
She has an absolutely innate sense of style and manages to bring an almost laid-back ease to even the most formal ensembles. Now approaching Barack Obama's second term, Michelle’s sartorial choices continue to be as closely watched as her husband’s political ones.
Signature: Sleeveless dresses to show off those sculpted arms, bright colors, a high-low mix, vivid patterns.