First Ladies’ Dresses

By now, you’re probably tired of hearing about “the dress” that broke the Internet. Whether you see white and gold or blue and black (or some combination of the two), you’re most likely over arguing about it with your friends and family (who will never see what you see anyway!).

But all this talk about dresses has inspired me to reflect on some of the most awesome dresses in American history, worn by powerful and influential First Ladies. Ever since I got my hands on some fiber during a fellowship at Historic Deerfield (their Textile Gallery is amazing), I have been fascinated by fashion history. Clothes are such a great artifact for helping us envision what it would have been like to live throughout periods in history. Can you imagine walking around all day in a heavy dress, constricted by a corset and still trying to keep up with the busy schedule of Marie Antoinette? (How she ate any cake in those clothes is beyond me!)

I rounded up seven dresses (although one, notably, isn’t a dress) worn by First Ladies throughout American history that are totally iconic, and important in their own right. (And I promise they won’t become the subject of heated water cooler debate!)

1. Martha Washington’s Silk Gown


It’s tempting to envision Martha Washington in a simple colonial mop cap and cotton dress. That’s certainly how she’s portrayed in many images. But this version of Martha is actually propaganda, designed to make her look humble and relatable to the “common people.” In reality, Martha ordered fine silks and laces from England. She understood the importance of fashion in society, and she “dressed the part” of a fine lady from Virginia with high quality fabrics and jewelry (she spent about $150 a year on jewelry, a small fortune!). Although she wasn’t over-the-top, Martha wore simple fashions of the finest quality. This silk gown from the Smithsonian Institution perfectly embodies Martha’s style. Not fussy or elaborate, but made of fine silks and perfectly in style for the early 1780s.  This gown is the only full-intact dress in existence that was worn by Martha Washington.

2. Dolley Madison’s Silk Gown


Dolley Madison was a fashion icon in her time. Written records prove that Dolley was a talking-point of her social circle, and her outfits are frequently mentioned in letters. Dolley had a signature turban that she wore almost always, which was often adorned by feathers or pearls One woman recounted in a letter from 1814 hat Dolley wore a turban with white ostrich feathers sticking out of it to a New Year’s party. Dolley’s turban was usually paired with a low-cut gown made of French silk. This particular gown, from the Smithsonian Institution, is representative of the height of fashion in the late 1810s. It is hand-embroidered and unapologetically elegant. I can just imagine Dolley in this gown and a feather-topped turban, all eyes on her as she makes her way through a party.

3. Mary Todd Lincoln’s Purple Dress


This purple dress, worn by Mary Todd Lincoln during her winter social season in 1861-62, is a truly special. The dress itself is lovely – made of purple velvet, piped with white satin, and trimmed with mother-of-pearl buttons. But the importance of this dress lies in who made it – an African American woman named Elizabeth Keckley (sometimes spelled “Keckly”). Keckley was a former slave who was eventually able to establish her own dressmaking business in Washington DC. Mary Todd hired Keckley to make many of her dresses, and the two women formed an “unusual friendship,” which Keckley later chronicled in her fascinating autobiography.

4. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Inaugural Dress


Eleanor Roosevelt never did anything small. Her inaugural dress was so popular that the press dubbed the color “Eleanor blue” (though, really it’s lavender…but let’s not go down that rabbit hole again). This dress, worn at FDR’s first inauguration, was made of crystelle velvet and was an instant hit. The press was particularly pleased that Eleanor’s dress was made in the United States by dressmaker Arnold Constable. One article described Eleanor as, “Tall, slim and girlish, in a dark blue ensemble and hat … the next First Lady looked more nearly like an elder sister than the mother of Mrs. Curtis Dall, her daughter [Anna]….”

5. Jackie Onassis Kennedy’s Pink Chanel Suit


Everything worn by Jackie O. is an instant fashion hit. However, one of her most iconic outfits is not remembered for its style, but rather for the tragic occasion it represents. Jackie wore this pink Chanel suit on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The Chanel suit was a symbol of fashion in the 1950s and 60s, and this pink suit with matching pillbox hat was beyond stylish. But most of us remember this suit in a different state – stained with blood during the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson. Because of its dual importance as the epitome of Jackie O.’s mid-century style and an illustration of Kennedy’s tragic assassination, this Chanel suit is one of the most important pieces of clothing in American history.

6. Hillary Clinton’s Ubiquitous Pantsuit


Hillary Clinton is truly a modern and groundbreaking First Lady, and Democratic Presidential candidate. Since her time on her husband’s campaign trail in the 1990s, Clinton has been getting flack for her pantsuits. Happily, Hillary has always been a good sport and willing to joke about the seemingly unending amount of pantsuits she owns and wears to every occasion. She has had some great one-liners about pantsuits, and even added “pantsuit aficionado” to her Twitter bio. My favorite: “In my White House, we’ll know who wears the pantsuits.”

7. Michelle Obama’s Inaugural Gown


Michelle Obama is a beautiful, strong woman who would be a style icon in almost anything. One of the reasons her fashion has become so iconic is that she tends to wear brands that are affordable and accessible, like J. Crew and H&M. But, for Barack’s Inaugural Ball in 2009, Michelle decided to kick it up a notch in a stunning one-shoulder dress by Taiwan-born young designer Jason Wu. Michelle’s white inaugural gown was an instant hit – so much so that she decided to repeat the performance. For Barack’s second inaugural ball in 2013, Michelle again wore a beautiful red gown made by the same designer.

Fashion is so much more than textiles – what adds meaning to these artifacts is the stories behind them, and the history that they hold. Our country has a long list of fashionable First Ladies, and many of their dresses (and pantsuits!) hold meaning far beyond their value as designer fashion.

Still staring at “the dress”,

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