Designers Debate First Lady Fashions

Designers Debate First Lady Fashions

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The sleek, silk satin ivory gown with matching cape Jacqueline Kennedy wore in 1961 remains the standard by which all future first ladies are judged.

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By Penelope Carrington/Media General News Service
Published: January 18, 2009

What the new first lady will wear to the inaugural balls has prompted numerous designers to illustrate how they would dress Michelle Obama.

The sketches they’ve offered show a range of ultrafeminine, romantic and sometimes flamboyant styles.

Her confident, sometimes bold and often economical-but-chic choices have earned Obama the respect of style watchers and everyday women. She’s had few stumbles — but one was that red and black Narciso Rodriguez number she wore during her husband’s Election Night acceptance speech.

Millions loved or hated it and in the real-time reactions that symbolize the Internet age, many had posted the pros and cons online within minutes of Obama hitting the Chicago stage.

“I’ve loved her style . . . but I think it cut her right in half,” said Henry Swartz, who teaches in VCU’s Fashion and Merchandising Department. “It was just an odd choice.”

Fashion historians and stylists say that’s not what the inaugural gown should be — given what the dress will represent about the woman, the nation and the culture of the day. Consider Jacqueline Kennedy, they said.

“That very streamlined silhouette that she incorporated into her look — which came from Oleg Cassini — you saw that happening in architecture and especially in art,” said Jacqueline Mullins, registrar and collections manager at the Valentine Richmond History Center in Richmond, Va.

It helped that Kennedy already had panache and was half of a good-looking couple in a growing family, she said.

“Even before John became president, a lot of people were paying attention to them — just as people were paying attention to Michelle and Barack,” Mullins said. “This was really the first time in American history where we had a president and wife who were already in the national spotlight in a way that we really hadn’t seen before — not just politically but also culturally.”

The sleek, silk satin ivory gown with matching cape Kennedy wore in 1961 remains the standard by which all future first ladies are judged. The reality, for better or worse, clashes with the vastly different personalities of those wanting to make a political point or reflect the tone of their husband’s administration.

Rosalynn Carter, for one, projected a little too much down-home frugality in 1977 by wearing the same dress she wore to her husband’s gubernatorial inauguration six years earlier.

In 1981, many thought Nancy Reagan brought back the glitz with a one-shoulder, beaded gown by James Galanos. Mullins said it’s what people expected.

“She and Ronald Reagan came from that Hollywood background . . . so it (fit) her background and personality,” she said.

Swartz disagreed. In fact, he said, Reagan’s dress stands out among inaugural gowns as a fashion Don’t.

“She was so thin and little . . . and no one should do strapless or one-shoulder” for such an occasion, he said.

But others have and earned raves. Mamie Eisenhower went strapless in 1957 with the her second inaugural gown by Nettie Rosenstein. By then, she was also known for her love of pink — the color of her first inaugural gown encrusted with more than 3,000 pink pearls; and her trademark fringe bangs.

Fast-forward to the Clinton and Bush eras and when loyalties to hometown designers waned the second time around. Neither the red, Chantilly lace gown Laura Bush wore by Dallas-based Michael Faircloth nor the purple, beaded dress created for Hillary Clinton by Arkansas’ Sarah Phillips scored with fashion critics. So for round two of their inaugural turns, both opted for Oscar de la Renta.

“The thing is, either you remember the really bad stuff or the really good . . . like life,” Swartz said. “It gives us balance — but that’s not helping us with this dress.”

That gown will be invited to the Smithsonian Institution, where it will join those worn by Clinton, Reagan and others in the First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History. The museum re-opened “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian” exhibit last month, just in time for the unveiling of the new first lady’s future contribution.

“Ultimately,” said Swartz, “when (Michelle) walks out there as well as him, it’s going to be something.”

Penelope M. Carrington is a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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