Seeing as the 2016 Presidential election campaign seems to have already begun, we thought we’d turn our attention to First Lady fashion. Our vintage fashion expert Claudine Villardito reports.
Stupid Netflix. I can finally blame my obsession with House of Cards for more than lackluster work performance; it is now responsible for inciting a debate among my fashionable friends as to whether the actual First Lady could be taken seriously while sporting a wardrobe as razor-sharp as fictional First Lady Claire Underwood’s. Many feel such sartorial focus undermines the dignity of the position, while others feel that dressing with conviction conveys confidence and leadership. Naturally I have turned to history for guidance.
Unelected and therefore unencumbered by the Constitution, First Ladies have always been free to define their own roles within their spouses’ administrations. No matter how limited or far-reaching their involvement in public service, however, as ceremonial surrogates of the President, First Ladies have acted as unofficial National Hostesses since General George Washington was inaugurated in 1789. And for better or worse the First Lady’s wardrobe has been the object of fascination, admiration and derision ever since.
Widowed before his election, Thomas Jefferson regularly called upon Dolley Madison, wife of his Secretary of State, to fulfill the duties of White House Hostess during his Presidency. Though her sparkling wit and political acumen won her an honorary seat in Congress during her own husband’s administration, she is also remembered for her experimental fashion sense, which included wearing feather turbans. Harriet Lane, niece of the nation’s only bachelor President James Buchanan, was the country’s first philanthropic First Lady and is credited with creating at age 26 what are now Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her clothing, however, eclipsed her impressive social agenda and turned her into a cultural icon: her scandalously low-cut inauguration gown dropped bodice lengths virtually overnight and became the template for Mary Todd Lincoln’s equally-shocking inauguration gown four years later.
The imitation of the First Lady’s personal style only gained traction in the 20th Century. Much to husband Calvin’s dismay, Grace Coolidge bobbed her hair, wore pants and played sports, making her the poster child for the uninhibited Jazz Age woman and producing legions of imitators. Mamie Eisenhower’s fondness for short bangs and the color pink so permeated the 1950s that one can hardly recall the decade without them. And of course Jackie Kennedy’s influence on American style can hardly be overstated: broadcast on the country’s new color televisions, the indelible image of her pillbox hats, sleeveless A-line dresses and oversized sunglasses represented the aspirations of millions of women and is still referenced today.
So, does an aptitude for fashion dilute a First Lady’s—or any woman’s—social and historical legacy? Will we remember Nancy Reagan more for her $10,000 Galanos inauguration gown, her Hollywood credentials or her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign? When we recall Michelle Obama, will we think of her law career, her work to combat childhood obesity or her affection for the clothes of J Crew and Jason Wu? The answer of course is “all of the above.”
But why aren’t we asking the same question of men? My suggestion: we should, because if dissection of the Presidential spouse’s wardrobe remains the pastime it has become, the first First Gentleman is in for a rude awakening.
• Claudine Villardito’s Tucson boutique Black Cat Vintage is open Saturdays 11 am–4 pm through and by appointment. Or shop online at blackcatvintage.com