Chic Executive: A look into the fashionable lives of the first ladies, past and present

February 10th, 2011

Years before the nation’s capital was situated on the north bank of the Potomac River, the wife of the President of the United States had stolen attention of the people.  

In the 18th century, Martha Washington arrived in New York City one month after her husband’s April 1789 inauguration, praised by many who cheered “Lady Washington,” as she passed by wearing a certain silk gown that embodied the style of the pre-Victorian Era.

Until the mid-19th century, the role of the president’s wife was relatively small.  

But as the city grew in population and the number of government workers increased, many caught a glimpse of the president’s family, in particular his wife.  

A greater interest was taken in her activities, and subsequently, her fashion. 

Serving as the commander in chief’s arm-candy is never the only duty of any first lady, as some wives became major players in their husband’s administrations.  

Abigail Adams was referred to by many as “Mrs. President,” Eleanor Roosevelt held 348 press conferences during her time in The White House, and Lady Bird Johnson passed “The Highway Beautification Act” in 1965 to beautify the nation’s highway system by limiting billboards and by planting roadside areas. 

Yet while many are fond of past first ladies’ accomplishments, others remember the various chief executives’ wives as trendsetters for a nation.  

First ladies from over 10 different administrations have inspired trends for a nation, yet remained professional in their style of dress.  Laura Dunn, creator of Political Style, a blog that offers a perspective on the worlds of politics and fashion, explained how first ladies can find an appropriate medium between posh and professional.

“Much like that of policy, I believe that each first lady should bring their own specific vision to their sense of style whilst serving their term,” she said.  

“If you compare Michelle Obama’s style pre-White House, many of the same pieces she wore on the campaign trail remain in her wardrobe. But you can see how her style has evolved, selecting more edgy pieces which show her personality, yet provide the professionalism required when representing the country.”

Discovering what works and what does not for a first lady is usually done with the help of aides who oversee the wardrobe of the president’s wife.  

This was evident in the early 1960s with first lady Jackie Kennedy. Oleg Cassini was chosen to design her state wardrobe after Jackie was seen wearing Parisian style pieces that deviated from American style, which wasn’t widely approved of at the time. 

Most remembered for her chic matching suits, stilettos and a variety of pillbox hats, Jackie adored the stylings of Chanel and Givenchy. 

Throughout the following administrations, down-to-earth fashion was exonerated through Lady Bird Johnson.  She once told Time, “I like clothes—I like them pretty, but I want them to serve me, not for me to serve them.”  

The first to be seen in public wearing pants was First Lady Pat Nixon. Rosalynn Carter shocked many when she recycled her blue chiffon gown to wear for her husband’s 1977 Inaugural Ball– a piece she had worn to his gubernatorial inauguration six years earlier.  

Hillary Clinton will be forever remembered in the fashion world for her heavy reliance on pantsuits– both as the first lady and on the 2008 presidential campaign trail.  

Some recognize this go-to choice as a nail in the fashion coffin, but Dunn disagrees.

“The pantsuit is a uniform for Hillary Clinton, but one that has evolved over recent years, particularly in her tenure as Secretary of state,” she said. “Clinton hasn’t lost any of her femininity by wearing pantsuits, and she achieves expression of her femininity through her hairstyle and her use of accessories.”

Whereas in the 1960s Jackie Kennedy preferred a much more Parisian, high-priced wardrobe, current first lady Michelle Obama has showed American women that her style is accessible to all women around the United States. 

This was apparent on Inaugural Day when she wore a pair of apple green gloves by J.Crew. Other affordable pieces she’s been spotted in were a belted leaf print dress by Merona for Target, a White House/Black Market floral dress, and a $25 cardigan from the Gap, worn to lunch with former first lady Nancy Reagan. 

Regardless of the cost, the style or the fashion statement to be made by the President’s wife, the first lady is a public figure who stands as a role model for many professional working women.

“Style helps to form a first lady’s identity in the outside world,” said Dunn.  “Policy selection aside, it is this image that helps to define the social side of the presidency.”