Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions

I usually share links to other sites during my Vintage Miscellany posts, but this video is so interesting (and so long) that I thought it deserved a bit of extra attention.  This is a video of an event that was held in Washington, DC last week.  Hosted by the US National Archives, it is a conversation about the fashions of the First Ladies.

The moderator is Tim Gunn of Project Runway, along with Valerie Steele of the Museum at FIT, Lisa Kathleen Graddy of the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and fashion designer Tracy Reese who has dressed Mrs. Obama.  Each participant brought an interesting perspective and set of knowledge, and Gunn kept the program moving.

Many of the clothing examples shown came from the Smithsonian’s collection.  For years there was a wonderful exhibition that started with Martha Washington and featured a dress from each First Lady.  They were all lined up in chronological order and it was an excellent timeline of two hundred years of fashion.

Several years ago this exhibition was taken down and was reinstalled as a sampling of clothes and personal items from the First Ladies.  I’m so glad that I got to see the First Ladies in all their glory, as the new exhibition is not nearly so impressive.  It is, however, wildly popular.  I was there last spring and had to squeeze into the smallish gallery along with busloads of field-tripping schoolgirls.  Still, it is a must-see exhibition for the visitor to Washington.

The question was asked of the panel participants: “Which First Lady’s style do you most admire?”  To me it is Dolley Madison, if only for the fact that she came from the North Carolina backwater and was reared as a Quaker, and went on to be one to the style leaders of her day.  Feel free to answer the question in the comments, and do yourself a favor and take an hour and a half to enjoy this program.



Filed under Proper Clothing

14 responses to “Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions

  1. I’m sorry to hear that the First Ladies exhibit has been truncated. I first saw it 35 years ago, and it really gave a feel for the changes in women’s dress (and size) over the years. And back then, it was just about the only “women’s history” you could find!


  2. John

    Thank you for sharing the video. I have yet to make a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian (bucket list item), but I wonder if this important exhibit might ever tour the USA. I’d definitely get to Seattle if so! Us Canadians only wish we had ‘first ladies’, if only for their indelible mark on fashion history.


    • Well, there was Mrs. Trudeau who definitely left a mark on some sort of history. (I’ve been reading Andy Warhol’s Diary and he mentions her a lot at parties and such.)

      I don’t know if the Smithsonian does traveling tours. They have enough First Lady material that they certainly could.


  3. Alice McGary

    Thank you so much for the link. It is very interesting how fashion and history join together and evolve to meet the times.


  4. Amazing 1,5 h! Thanks for sharing this video.


  5. Christine

    Wow. Thanks so much, Lizzie, for providing the video. I’ll definitely watch this later today. This is a GREAT post. Thank you!


  6. Agnes Gawne

    I agree that the “old” exhibit highlighting one item from each first lady was better – but museum styles change so we are stuck with the paucity they share now from the first ladies collection. It really is a shame.


    • As much as I prefer the old exhibition, I do understand why they changed it. Some of the dresses had been on view for many, many years, and were beginning to be a bit shop worn. And as you said, exhibit styles do change, and I’m sure the old timeline was seen a out-dated.


  7. there is so much about this…the lack of knowledge of history that should have been interwoven thru the early administrations is …is! The previous exibit is enough…i am in DC all next month-will not waste my time…Being a “cave-dweller” Washingtonian and a former Fashion Editor and Director there for many years i can only say(for myself) this was pretty “dry”! THANK YOU for sharing this Lizzie! IF you have not seen the award winning Ken urns Doc on DC?Early Years-it will explain the turmoil and confusion that existed, Establishing our identity was not easy-that would explain Dolly in her red gown and turban..From Dolley to Jackie (according to (experts) there was not much in between!!


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