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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. 

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Can a razor-sharp wardrobe and political clout go together? Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright in House of Cards, would say yes. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

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.

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Harriet Lane scandalized polite society with her low bodices. Photo courtesy of the National First Ladies’ Library.

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Dolley Madison in one of her feather turbans. Photo courtesy of the National First Ladies’ Library.

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.

Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo courtesy of historicalstockphotos.com

Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo courtesy of historicalstockphotos.com

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.

Grace Coolidge (NFLL)

Grace Coolidge was “the poster child for the uninhibited Jazz Age woman”. Photo courtesy of the National First Ladies’ Library.

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

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Square Feet


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We’re as nosy as the next person about the insides of people’s homes. That’s why we bring you a great property pick each issue. This month we visit the home of author Chris Gall, whose Dinotrux books will be turned into a Netflix series this year. Story and photos by Rachel Miller. 

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A one-of-a-kind ‘flaming rocket’ light sculpture hangs above the bar in Chris Gall’s Joesler home.

I admit to a little apprehension in approaching the home of Chris and Ann Courtney Gall. After all, this is the house where Dinotrux came in to being, or rather DIIINNNNNOOOOTRUX (it must be said in your deepest, most resonating voice), a favorite children’s book in our home. Indeed, our copies are so well-thumbed I was embarrassed to bring them and request signatures.

Chris Gall, Dinotrux, home tour

Working vintage phones and radios add to the nostalgia

What kind of home environment nurtures the creation of such well-loved children’s books? Books that promise to explode onto the screen this year when an animated series based on the books comes to Netflix? Whimsy? A mess of dinosaurs and trucks? Art that reflects the bold, exaggerated images of the artist and author?

There are no dinosaurs or old ’50s trucks littering the Tucson home of Chris and Ann Courtney Gall, but there is whimsy. Toy Story‘s Buzz Lightyear soars through the studio and office alongside meticulously assembled model airplanes – both indicators of Chris’s interest in restoration and mechanical tinkering. There are working vintage radios and a World War II submarine phone, along with the ham radio.  And there is plenty of stunning art, including Chris’s own work.

The artwork is reminiscent of ’40s and ’50s graphics: rich and striking in color and line, particularly appropriate for a house of this era. This is Americana, but not kitsch and not frilly. This is bold and beautiful. Think vintage Park Service posters, but with a Norman Rockwell twist.

About the home: Built in 1951, the original Josias Joesler home is in Tucson’s Catalina Foothills Estates within 15 minutes of downtown. Atop a small hill with stunning mountain views, Chris and Ann have gracefully doubled the square footage over the past 24 years to 3,800 square feet. While the size of the house has doubled, the characteristic Joesler design features have been painstakingly maintained: the high ceilings, large picture windows, and use of porches.

Home Tour of Chris and Ann Gall's home

Chris at work in his studio

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The master bedroom addition.

Describe your style:“There is a word…it’s not craftsman like, but…it’s Frank Lloyd Wright in home décor palate in places. We used to say everything was harvest colors…there’s a nostalgic quality to our home.”

Your fave thing about your home: “The mountain and city views, and the acreage (4 acres) around the house, as well as the building materials. We like the red brick.”

Biggest splurge: “The stained glass front door by local artist Jon Goldbaum. I took a classic Frank Lloyd Wright design and changed it up, switching the colors, and Jon Goldbaum created it for us.”

Best bargain: “The casement windows that we found at Gerson’s for my studio.”

My DIY Moment: “Building all the window frames in the new master addition.”

Favorite resources: “Restoration Hardware, local art fairs and [southern Arizona village] Tubac.”

Tucson treasures: “The one of a kind flaming rocket light sculpture over the bar we bought here in town, and the mesquite and antler coffee table at a local art show. We also have a few paintings by Phoenix artist Ed Mell.”

Take-away lesson:  Take time to do it right. Sometimes doing it right means doing it yourself. Unable to find used casement windows the right size, Chris used his welding skills to make the windows for the master addition. Added bonus: these casement windows are double-glazed.

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Are you digging these digs?

Get the look locally:

Take to local art fairs and search for locally sourced furniture for a feel that reflects the environment. Hang your own Chris Gall Giclee print from ArtsEye Gallery on Grant Road, or frame art in the form of books, bought from Kid’s Center or Yikes Toy Store. Check out Etsy store Hot Cool Vintage for sweet kitchen artifacts that fit the era of your home.

Or try these we found online (contains Amazon Affiliates):

From left to right: Steppe Bed , $1,399 from Crate & Barrel; America the Beautiful $6.91 on AmazonSafavieh Lamps $175.69 on Amazon 

* Look out for an animated series of Dinotrux, about the time when hybrid dinosaur-construction characters rules the earth, this Spring from Netflix. More here. 

Loving our Square Feet column? Take a look at our previous columns here.