After the flurry of fashions seen at the Inauguration and the anti-climactic reality of no inauguration gowns thanks to the pandemic, I decided to fill the void and take a peek back in history to see what former First Ladies found fashionable and if they had the FashionSHEsta factor of living with Style & Happiness, Every day!
What I found was a treasure trove of incredible women who made their mark not predicated on the permission of others. There is a lot of information out there and you can easily spend a lot of time absorbed in curiosity of what made our First Ladies tick.
As to not take you down the rabbit hole of feeling as if you’ve been thrust back to middle school history class, I’ve condensed the list down to 5 out of the 54 FLOTUS’ (43 official and 11 acting).
Each of the women who have served the role of the first lady has interesting stories and WOW factors when you consider the increment of time they served and the surrounding conditions they were dealing with.
First on the list is Helen, “Nellie” Taft. She was the wife of William Howard Taft (#27) and served from 1909-1913
Helen Taft caught my attention with some of her First lady “firsts.”
Helen “Nellie” Taft was ambitious from the get go. Not only did she set her sights on being a First Lady when she was only 17 after a 5 day visit to the White House (her parents were active in politics). She received a lot of the credit for her husband becoming the POTUS through her encouragement and tireless campaigning.
I mentioned feeling disappointed that there wasn’t the pomp and circumstance this year for the inaugural ball like there has been in the past. Maybe it’s because growing up, I spent just about every weekend and summer at my grandparents house in Atlantic City & at the time Miss America was a big deal. I loved watching the pageant every September as the contestants appeared to glide across the runway in their stunning evening gowns. Or, maybe I’m just a sucker for glamour…yep, that feels right, glam me like ya know me.
Three former presidents cancelled their inaugural balls for either personal or financial reasons. The rest celebrated with some type of a formal ball, they ranged from simple to over-the-top. Some even had buildings constructed just to host the gathering!
Inaugural Balls really were dialed up during the 1950’s after President Truman. It was during the 1950’s that multiple inaugural balls and events were held. The Obamas had 10 official and 121 unofficial inaugural balls! Whoa! That’s a lot of blister Band-Aids!
Nellie was the first First Lady to donate her inauguration gown worn in 1909 to the Smithsonian which, in turn, has since created a beautiful display of over two dozen gowns. *At the time of this being published the Smithsonian is still closed due to the pandemic. You can view some of the collection here: https://americanhistory.si.edu/firstladies-interactive/index.html
Some other random “firsts” from Nellie Taft were:
Another thing that Nellie Taft helped to make happen that we can still enjoy today are the Cherry Trees that line the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Apparently, she brokered a deal with Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo who presented the first 3000 trees as a “memorial of national friendship between the U.S. and Japan.”
Nellie Taft’s Inaugural gown from 1909 had empire-waisted in ivory colored silk chiffon heavily beaded in sprays of rhinestones and beads.
Jaqueline Kennedy (John Kennedy 1961-1963)
If you’re over 50 chances are that you grew up hearing about Jackie O and how “sharp” she was. There have been plenty of documentaries and articles written about her sophisticated style.
Jaqueline Kennedy was First Lady for just under 3 years, (1961-1963) but in that time made her mark with personal style and restoring the White House as well as an influence in art and culture. It was her desire for the White House to be “a showcase of American art and history.”
Before Jaqueline Kennedy restored the White House, much of the artwork and furnishings had either been sold at auction at the turn of the century or prior presidents and their families had taken furnishings and other items from the White House when they departed. (I think I’ll just help myself to this mahogany chippendale dresser for our guest room…)
Jaqueline Kennedy instilled that moving forward, all furnishings for the White House belong to the Smithsonian.
In the brief increment of time that Jaqueline Kennedy served as First Lady she managed to leave a solid legacy and pioneered a few “firsts” for First Ladies:
As far as her personal style and the influence she had on pop culture at the time, the “Jackie” look was the early ’60’s look. When you think of Jackie O, oversized sunglasses, pill box hats, bright colors, jeans, turtlenecks, and silk headscarves, in addition to her wide collection of statement jewelry probably come to mind. (She “had me at HELLO”)
Here are some of the iconic “lewks” of this influencer-
Jaqueline Kennedy had an affinity for Paris fashion houses but as the FLOTUS, chose American made pieces for her official/public wardrobe.
The pink boucle’ (Boo-clay) suit worn on November 22, 1963 in Dallas was a Line-for-line copy of a Chanel suit. A “line for line” copy is a garment made as an exact replica of an existing garment style, produced in a similar fabric.
Even though the items Jaqueline Kennedy wore that fateful day were sent to the National Archives, they technically belonged to Caroline Kennedy following her mother’s death.
In 2003, Caroline signed a deed of gift, with the provision that the suit be preserved but not displayed publicly until at least 2103, so as not to “in any way to dishonor the memory of the late President or cause unnecessary grief or suffering to members of his family.”
I don’t think her hat and gloves were ever recovered, but her suit, hosiery, shoes, and jewelry are in a vault in Maryland until 2103.
While we are talking about President Kennedy’s assassination, it was Jaqueline Kennedy who requested an eternal flame be placed at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, VA.
The idea was inspired by the one at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris that she and President Kennedy admired while traveling to France in 1961.
The fact that her husband was assassinated while sitting next to her just 2 months after losing their infant son is hard to fathom.
After President Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson offered Jackie an ambassadorship to France but she politely declined the offer and instead asked that President Johnson rename the Florida space center the John F. Kennedy Space Center. #Legacy
In addition to renovating the White House and bringing artifacts and culture into the White House, Jaqueline had a few other “firsts” as FLOTUS:
“I have been through a lot and have suffered a great deal. But I have had lots of happy moments, as well. Every moment one lives is different from the other. The good, the bad, hardship, the joy, the tragedy, love, and happiness are all interwoven into one single, indescribable whole that is called life. You cannot separate the good from the bad. And perhaps there is no need to do so, either.” -Jaqueline Kennedy
Thelma Catherine “Pat” Nixon (Richard Nixon 1969–1974)
Pat Nixon had grit and fortitude at a young age. Pat and her siblings grew up on a farm in California. After her mother died from cancer when Pat was only 13 years old, in addition to continuing to work on the farm, Pat took on the additional responsibilities of cooking and cleaning for her father, brothers and farm hands. By the time Pat was 18 years old, she also lost her father to a terminal disease. Pat was determined to get an education and get away from farm life so she worked her way through college at the University of South Carolina where she graduated Cum laude in 1937.
Three years later, she married Richard Nixon after meeting him at a local theatre. Apparently he asked her to marry him on their first date but she made him wait and ultimately married 2 years later.
Mimosa silk satin gown embroidered in gold and silver and encrusted with Austrian crystals.
One of Pat’s early initiatives as First Lady was to promote volunteerism, urging people to donate their time and services to hospitals, schools, day care centres, and nursing homes. Pat believed volunteerism would be a way to bring the divided country back together.
Pat Nixon wanted to create White House tours for the blind and deaf, and was the first first lady to wear pants in public.
Like Jaqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon also had an interest in adding artwork and historical artifacts to the White House, her efforts brought about 600 paintings and furnishings into the White House Collection. (I feel like such a slacker.)
“All lives have triumphs and tragedies, laughter and tears, and mine has been no different. What really matters is whether, after all of that, you remain strong and a comfort to your loved ones. I have tried to meet that test.” Pat Nixon
Betty Ford Gerald Ford August 9, 1974 – January 20, 1977
Betty Ford grew up in the midwest and spent much of her time modeling and studying dance before moving to New York City to study under choreographer, Martha Graham. Betty loved studying modern dance under Martha Graham and had the opportunity to dance with Fred Astaire as well as performing at Carnegie Hall.
Unfortunately for Betty, her mother did not approve and demanded she return to Michigan which she did and went on to teach dance to children and work as a fashion coordinator for a popular local department store.
In 1948, Betty married her second husband, Gerald Ford three weeks before he was elected as a US Congressman- the 1st of 13 times. Their political history is one for the books!
Fast forward to December 6, 1973, when Gerald was appointed Vice President under Richard Nixon, after Vice President Spiro Angew resigned.
Then, (as political craziness would have it) on August 9, 1974, in an unprecedented move, Nixon resigned from office under pressure from the Watergate scandal. Under United States law, Gerald became the 38th President of the United States and Betty was officially the First Lady!
Because of the circumstances, there wasn’t a traditional inaugural ball. Not to worry, a First Lady may contribute an item of her choosing to donate to the the collection at the Smithsonian and she chose this pale-green sequined chiffon gown embroidered in a floral/chrysanthemum pattern that she wore to a state dinner. Betty could pop a mandarin collar like no one else!
Thanks to her experience as a fashion coordinator, it didn’t take long for Betty to come up with her signature look that included a chic bob (TY for the validation), tailored jackets, and silk scarves.
Struggles set in quickly…
Not long after becoming FLOTUS, Betty was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Keep in mind that it was 1974 and women’s health issues weren’t openly discussed 47 years ago like they are now.
Betty wanted to be transparent about her health issues, including her dependency/addiction to pills and alcohol because she didn’t want the secrecy of the previous administration to tarnish her husband’s legacy.
Betty was also a strong proponent for the women’s movement/feminism before, during and after her service as FLOTUS. (Thank you, Betty!)
I’m currently 52 years old and don’t remember too much about Betty Ford as a First Lady, but I love this picture of her dancing on the table in the (stuffy) Cabinet Room. (It was taken on the last day of her husband’s presidency).
Way to rock your inner FashionSHEsta, Betty!
“A liberated woman is one who feels confident in herself, and is happy in what she is doing. She is a person who has a sense of self, it all comes down to a freedom of choice.”
Michelle Obama (Barack Obama 2009–2017)
I remember the shrieks and gasps when Michelle Obama bared her arms. Apparently previous FLOTUS’ didn’t do such a thing. Although, I have to believe that Mary Todd Lincoln was high-fiving from heaven saying, YES QUEEN, if I had those arms I would have done it back in 1862!
In addition to Michelle Obama being the first FLOTUS to “bare arms,” she had a few other firsts, one being the first to hug the Queen of England. Again, why do we tend to obsess over such trivial things? (Liz loved it)
Michelle Obama, like many other First Ladies, had a low desire for politics at the level of the presidency, but she was committed to her husband and dug her kitten heels in and committed to helping the American people through her influence as FLOTUS, focusing her attention on social issues such as poverty, healthy living and education.
Michelle Obama is an ambitious, independent woman. She graduated cum laude from Princeton in 1985 and earned her Juris Doctorate from Harvard in 1988 before meeting Barack in 1989 at the Chicago firm Sidley Austin.
Barack was a summer intern to whom Michelle was assigned as an adviser. Apparently, Michelle didn’t think they should date due to their employment situation, but my Spidey-senses tell me that once Barack woo’ed her with a line or two from an Al Green song, it no longer mattered.
For the Inaugural Ball in 2009, Michelle chose a gown by a new designer at the time named Jason Wu. I remember how beautiful and elegant they both looked and it didn’t take long for the media to anoint them as the next “Camelot.”
A single-shoulder white silk chiffon Jason Wu gown embellished with organza flowers and Swarovski crystals
While Michelle Obama’s inaugural attire for the ball was high-level-glam, only a few hours before, she was photographed wearing gloves from J.Crew that matched her ensemble for President Obama’s swearing in ceremony. I’m pretty sure it was that moment that many Americans appreciated her grounded and relatable style. I mean, did cardigans even exist before Michelle Obama?
One of her initiatives as FLOTUS was the “Let’s Move!” program to help reduce childhood obesity. The program ultimately led to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutritional standards for all food in schools.
Another first for Michelle Obama as First Lady was that she was the first African-American FLOTUS. I find this quote taken from her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention profound considering the grounds the White House sits on was once a plantation and the White House itself was constructed by slaves.
We all know how the story ends, but what Michelle Obama possibly spoke into existence was the fact that we now have a Vice President who is a woman who happens to be bi-racial.
“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves—and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, Black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters—and all our sons and daughters—now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States.”
Learning about our former First Ladies has been very insightful. Many have struggled with depression, chemical dependence, loneliness, betrayal, heart wrenching loss and any number of other things that most of us wouldn’t want the entire world to have access to. Yet, as too often we do as women, they still found the strength to put on a happy face and “grin and bear it.”
If you find yourself in a funk, I suggest a quick Google search of any of our former First Ladies for some fortitude. When you read their stories and consider what was happening at the time in our society, there’s a good chance you will be left with an, “I’ve got this!” attitude for whatever struggle you are facing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into these First Ladies. I must admit, the research was waaaaaaaaayy more than I had anticipated. Do you remember in the beginning of when I said I didn’t want to send you back to history class? Well, during the research for this article I was thinking that I should have cut class! lol
I think next week’s post will be something along the lines of how to paint by numbers. Have a great week and I hope that you will continue to visit FashionSHEsta.com as I continue to add content.
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