In September 2016, a graduate student from Italy came to the National First Ladies’ Library to conduct in-depth research on the fashions of the last half-century of First Ladies and to determine ways in which the visual impact and their clothing choices had either a political or public impact, as well as to understand their own responsiveness to current trends, and work with American designers in crafting their public image. The NFLL Historian responded both in a lengthy telephone interview and then with written answers to follow-up questions posed to him by the research student.
The responses have been reconfigured and adapted into separate entries of individual First Ladies.
This five-part series is adapted from that material. Part I covers Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson; Part II, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford; Part III, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan; Part IV, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton; Part V, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.
Laura Bush began her tenure as First Lady with a wardrobe that reflected a more subdued and conservative style.
Within a short time, however, she drew notice by more frequently appearing in slim and tailored pants suits, following a precedent set by Hillary Clinton.
Generally these were in muted colors but they were shaded in greens, pinks and oranges and also included textured tweed wool suits.
Mrs. Bush also wore colorful and lavish form-fitting evening gowns for many state occasions, as well as both inaugural balls in 2001 and 20o5.
During the swearing-in ceremony and parade of both inaugurations, she did not wear a hat.
For the first event, she appeared in a light blue, and for the second she wore white.
During Mrs. Bush’s numerous trips on her own to African and Middle Eastern nations, Laura Bush respected local custom and often wore headscarves.
When this was not expected during a visit she made to Saudi Arabia to raise awareness of breast cancer detection and treatment, however, she posed entirely at ease with other women who were covered except for their eyes.
While it is not necessarily what she wore as much as what she did not wear that is notable, it is perhaps her most iconic image as First Lady related to clothing.
Certainly one can say Michelle Obama truly blossomed in her clothing choices from almost the moment she became First Lady, right away wearing bold colors and dramatic styles.
Previously, as a young woman from a working-class family, then a law student, working attorney, and city and hospital administrator she had never indulged or displayed a taste for bolder fashions.
Michelle Obama has worn such a wide and dramatic range of colors and styles that it is difficult to identify one indelible iconic image of her.
She has not so much spoken about her interest in fashion during her eight years as First Lady as she has made a statement simply by her appearance.
She has made a conscious effort to mix high-end and affordable clothes (a public gesture she first began by appearing on The Ellen Show in a flowered dress from J.Crew during the 2008 campaign), and wearing the work of minority designers.
Initially, Mrs. Obama frequently showed a marked preference for the color purple which, beginning in the year her husband was first elected president, had become something of a symbolic color symbolic of a mixing of blue and red, a political emblem of bi-partisanship.
Mrs. Obama’s years as First Lady has given her a chance to try a wide variety of styles and colors and prints, both for formal wear and also informal.
She has been credited by those who closely scrutinize her clothing style as well as the larger trends, for popularizing the use of wide belts at the waist.
The First Lady has also generated a signature look all her own, of using sweaters with matching colored pants, perhaps a more contemporary and relaxed version of the traditional First Lady suit.
Even when she has worked in the White House garden, digging and stomping through mud she has often wore color-coordinated sweaters and spandex-activewear pants.
Regardless of whether it strikes a popular or unpopular reaction, she has been willing to take risks and wear colors and styles not previously associated with First Ladies.
She has even been somewhat daring, appearing in shorts before a mountain climbing vacation that nevertheless raised some criticism from those who were perhaps unaware of the fact that she went directly from the plane to begin a rigorous hike.
Similarly, the other First Ladies are iconic more by particular color and style rather than any one definitive, dramatic historical event that what they happened to be wearing that day became part of the permanent collective memory of that moment.
Like Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama as been among the most popular of First Ladies for her clothing and regularly featured in both print and online publication images with a focus on what she wears.