Fewer outfits are more scrutinized than those worn by the First Ladies of the United States. There are blogs dedicated to White House fashion wins (and losses) and news accounts of designer dress choices. These women not only had the power to influence the fashion trends of their era, but they were also able to use their skills to help important causes and shape the role of what a “First lady” means. So in honor of President’s Day, we took a look at some seriously stylish First Lady Fashions and how these famous women defined American fashion.
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (Credit: Gavin Ashworth)
Newly widowed and wealthy Martha chose a high ranking military official named George as her second husband, a choice that would make her the nation’s very first First Lady. While history books often showed her in her later matronly years, Martha pioneered the smart, daring fashion choices made by First Ladies to come. She wore purple silk high heels with silver sequins on her wedding day – and the mix and match trend is one we still love today for wedding and prom shoes!
Only one of Martha Washington’s gowns remains fully intact. Her brown silk taffeta gown dates back to the 1790s, and the bodice straps and fabric details remind us of medieval armor, perfect for one of the early nation’s most powerful female figures.
Dolley Payne Todd Madison (Credit: montpelier.org)
Dolley Madison knew how to work a room and use her sense of style to empower her role as the President’s wife. She redecorated the President’s House after taking office, which was a man’s role at the time. She held lavish dinner parties to mingle with influential guests, along with more informal weekly gatherings to discuss current events with Washington’s elite. And her fashion choices were meant to define her image as a First Lady of the American people. She wore bright colors and low-cut empire waist evening gowns
in rich materials, which were the most current style of her day. For her husband’s inauguration she wore a velvet gown and a turban festooned with feathers – how chic is that?!
But Dolley made sure to dress in a way that was lavish enough to make her look important, yet demure enough not to make her look like royalty, which would have set the wrong tone in a country that had recently won its independence. Her smart choices garnered her an honorary seat in Congress, newspaper headlines, and a top place on our First Lady Fashions list.
Grace Goodhue Coolidge (Credit: Official Portrait)
President Coolidge doesn’t sit high on the list of infamous presidents, but his wife Grace played a pivotal role in bringing flapper fashion to the forefront of American culture. She took office during the Jazz Age and embraced the freeing styles of the Roaring Twenties: straight-waisted dresses, shorter hemlines, and Deco style opulent embroidery. She was well known for wearing bright gowns and embracing color. The striking red dress worn in her First Lady portrait looks chic and timeless; we could totally see it fitting in with our Valentine’s Day plus size dresses. Grace was able to show off her personal sense of style while winning over the American public. According to The New York Times , Vanity Fair named her to the magazine’s Hall of Fame in 1927 because, “she is the first lady of the land and the wife of the President of the United States; because she is one of the best liked and most charming hostesses in Washington.”
Oh, and did we mention Grace had a pet raccoon? That pretty much makes her one of the coolest women on our list.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (Credit: Arthur Rickerby)
So much has been said about the influential style of “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis. The pillbox hats. The oversized shades. The couture Chanel gowns. What we admire most about this fabulous First Lady Fashionista is her ability to create a look that was undeniably her own. Jackie’s fashion choices were copied by American women who saw her as a style icon just as much for her tasteful turtlenecks as for her gorgeous white silk inaugural ball gown
Jackie also spearheaded the trend of embracing an American fashion designer. Her partnership with designer Oleg Cassini was a perfect match: she made his label a household name and he helped create the “Jackie look” of crisp A-line dresses, 60s sheath cuts, and empire waist strapless evening gowns. Her fashion choices helped define the styles of the 60s and 70s, and her outfits continue to influence women’s fashions today.
Michelle Robinson Obama (Credit: AFP)
The final fashionable lady on our list is our current favorite, Michelle Obama. Her modern, approachable style is one that garnered her many fans and even sparked a few fashion debates (to wear shorts or not to wear shorts as First Lady…).
Michelle is a great example of how she, like First Ladies before her, can use fashion choices to her advantage. She is known as a dresser other women can relate to because she recycles outfits and wears both high end and mass market designs. Her pieces from brands like J.Crew and Banana Republic bolstered the companies’ sales, and her choice of then-unknown design Jason Wu for her inauguration gown made him famous overnight.
She also uses her fashion sense to gain publicity, like her covers for Vogue and Better Homes and Gardens. And most importantly, she uses this publicity to promote her causes, such as her Let’s Move campaign to combat childhood obesity. And that’s what really ties these First Ladies together. They were able to use fashion as a tool to help them in the White House, from advancing women’s rights to improving their roles in government.
Happy President’s Day to each of these amazing First Ladies, and to all you stylish, hard-working women out there!