A recent inquiry to the library asked the question of whether Hillary Clinton had always made public appearances in pants rather than dresses and, further, just when it was that First Ladies started wearing pants.
Much is revealed about gender roles and evolving moral code in the history of clothing.
With the examples of a President and First Lady long held aloft as a examples for the nation to follow, what they wore often took on greater significance as a symbol not just of the changing taste of the nation but also the role of men and women.
Long before the presidency’s inception or even the founding of the United States, adults knew that women wore undergarments that resembled pants in a large, loose shape, beneath even petticoats.
However, it was not socially acceptable for women to appear in anything but clothing that reached the floor and concealed their legs.
In some cases, women could be arrested for being seen in the “indecent” balloonish undergarment in public.
Parallel to the mid-19th century women’s suffrage movement, however, came the radical idea that women should be allowed to wear shorter shirts that permitted their bloomer pants to be seen.
In fact, it was an advocate of a woman’s right to vote, Amelia Bloomer, who first put forth this notion and had the pants named for her, “the bloomers.”
By the Gilded Age, as the push for equality became more a more pressing social issue in Washington by those seeking to influence legislators, a woman physician by the name of Mary Walker boldly began dressing as a man in pants and a top hat, to emphasis her belief that women had the right to vote.
While 19th century First Ladies were already wearing pants in the form of bloomers or more skin-tight cotton pants for warmth beneath their dresses, it was only the practicality of a situation that led to a November 7, 1880 photograph being taken which showed the incumbent First Lady Lucy Hayes in what appears to be pants.
She had posed with the President and an entourage that was touring the west and had just submerged into a Virginia City, Nevada silver mine. Thus it was the condition of preventing herself from tripping on a long dress as she descended into the dark mine that the image, which was not publicly released at the time, was snapped.
It was also the practical need for safety that led to the second First Lady being photographed in “pants,” even though Florence Harding was not yet technically the wife of a president but a president-elect.
During a post-eletion December 1920 trip to Panama with her husband, Mrs. Harding gamely accepted the offer of an air flight in a seaplane. Certain angles of the newspaper photographs showing her gear up in helmet and goggles also revealed that she was wearing a protective duster with pants, covering her dress, allowing her to climb into the plane.
Despite the more liberated women’s clothing of the 1920s, there was still a degree of decorum expected of how First Ladies dressed in public. The conundrum was what sphere of their activities counted as “private” and what was “public,” since even when they weren’t making official appearances but were window-shopping or exercising out among others they could now be easily photographed.
It was concern for that this might happen that President Coolidge, upon learning that his wife was about to leave and take her first horse-riding lessons while dressed in “culotte” pants, refused to permit her to appear this way in public.
Her immediate successor Lou Hoover, however, had long been riding horses and wasn’t going to stop just because she was First Lady. On one occasion, she was recognized by a press reporter who captured her riding towards Rock Creek Park, not riding sidesaddle in a dress but on a western saddle and wearing women’s riding jodhpurs.
While the private photographs taken by friends and family of the Hoovers during a weekend visit to the presidential retreat Camp Rapidan in Virginia were not seen for long decades after the fact, at least one shows the First Lady relaxing in her riding pants in the privacy of trusted friends.
Eleanor Roosevelt, known for shattering precedent in many spheres of the First Lady role, also loved riding horses regularly in the early morning and her famous informality allowed her to comfortably continue wearing her jodhpurs around the White House upon her return.
One year, without time to change before she was due to preside over the annual Easter Egg Roll, she just showed up in her riding pants.
Mrs. Roosevelt was not in the least bit embarrassed about being seen by thousands of people that day wearing pants.
Knowing that the general public would also see this unconventional glimpse of their new First Lady once photographs her walking the grounds were published, she decided to go one better.
She formally posed wearing them on the South Portico.
Like Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt before her, Jackie Kennedy was an enthusiastic horsewoman and was comfortable wearing her jodhpurs around the White House.
She, however, represented a younger generation that had been comfortable wearing pants in public as teenagers during World War II.
Consequently, she made headlines during the 1960 presidential campaign not so much for being photographed in tight pants and a sweater while walking with her husband at his family’s Cape Cod estate, on her way down a dock to their sailboat.
It was the fact that her sweater was orange and her pants were pink that the New York Times correctly predicted that this was the first hint that the public might be in for a new kind of First Lady.
On her many vacations, winter, spring, summer and fall, Mrs. Kennedy would invariably be snapped wearing informal pants.
During her 1962 vacation in Italy, for example, she was seen sporting a new European trend known as “palazzo pants” and became associated with them since the creator of these was among her circle at the time.
It was only at private, informal gatherings at the White House, however, that Mrs. Kennedy appeared in anything resembling pants, in this case a wide-legged sort that gave the appearance of a dress.
Otherwise she, like all her predecessors appeared in formal gowns at state dinners and other official social events.
It was at the height of the Women’s Movement that the first First Lady truly embraced the idea of wearing pants and felt comfortable enough to pose in them.
In February of 1972, Pat Nixon donned several outfits by leading American clothing designers for a color photo fashion spread, deciding to chose two women’s pantsuits to model, one in pink and another in black.
By then, women wearing pants was becoming more acceptable, if not entirely mainstreamed among most demographics of the United States. While women would soon begin to rise within professional life, controversy remained about whether it was appropriate for them to appear in the office in pants.
Even the First Lady considered to be a leader of the 1970s Women’s Movement wore pants in the White House only in private.
It was for a famous image taken on her last day as First Lady that Betty Ford, a former professional dancer, posed with her shoes off atop the Cabinet table – wearing pants.
Nancy Reagan might be credited with wearing a type of pants in public – but only on one occasion and with much criticism.
At a formal dinner in Paris with foreign leaders, she appeared in a black dress with black knicker pants beneath them.
While she continued to appear in formal gowns at official functions, by the 1980s she too was entirely comfortable being seen in public while at the Reagan ranch near Santa Barbara, California.
The more rugged and relaxed lifestyle at this presidential retreat made pants the only appropriate clothing for the First Lady to wear.
Barbara Bush pushed the idea of First Ladies being just fine in pants around the White House a slight step forward.
Enjoying the chance to walk her dogs around the vast South Lawn and the many areas around it that the public could not glimpse from outside the gate, she usually put on some informal white slacks.
Certainly, pants are more closely associated with Hillary Clinton than any other First Lady. In the public eye for an unprecedented quarter-century now, it may seem hard not to imagine her in them.
However memory may lead to the false impression that she had always worn her famous multi-colored pants suits since entering the White House.
It was not until her last year there, as she was conducting her campaign for the United States Senate at the end of 1999 and through all of 2000 that it came to be her signature look.
In fact, this first First Lady to serve in both elected and appointed federal political positions is closely is she associated with a mode of appearance that is her genuine personal preference that she even posed for her official White House portrait in pants.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, the first First Lady of the 21st century Laura Bush began appearing publicly in pants from practically her first months in the position and all through the eight years of her husband’s Administration.
Observers noted that even when she made a visit to Saudi Arabia, where there was a strict gender code enforced that kept its women citizens in the most strictly modest clothing, the American First Lady still appeared in her pants.
While they may have given more distinct form, the garb paradoxically kept from exposing what would have been bare legs had she worn dresses.
Ushering in her tenure of often bold and expressive clothing as First Lady, Michelle Obama has marked her wardrobe with the widest variety of styles, much of which included pants.
By the 2010s any societal taboo used to judge women for wearing pants was considered greatly outdated and so neither she nor Mrs. Bush were ever taken to task for being seen publicly in them during daytime and even some evening events and ceremonies.
The one incident involving Mrs. Obama wearing pants that did cause some critical review was when she was snapped getting off of Air Force One while dressed in short pants.
Of course, it was entirely appropriate – she was arriving to for a summer vacation in the western mountains and proceed immediately from the airport to a strenuous hike.
The incident struck a familiar echo of when Jackie Kennedy was criticized for allowing herself to be seen wearing a bathing suit – as she was entering the water for a swim.