The Triumph of Substance and Style: The Changing Fashion of our First Ladies

by Editorial

Much like her predecessor Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush’s style grew more sophisticated as her White House years passed by. She started out by wearing Dallas-based designers like Michael Faircloth; by her husband’s second inauguration, she had embraced more sophisticated pieces by Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta, the designer she turned to most often in the administration’s final years .

We couldn’t imagine shaking the unadorned hand of a queen, but in America, we expect our leading political ladies to be elegant without being over-indulgent. During the recent presidential campaign, Cindy McCain was denounced for wearing $280,000 diamond earrings on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton endured similar disapproval as first lady when her Ann Hand faux diamond earrings were mistaken for the real thing.

Before the era of relentless media scrutiny, first ladies frequently indulged in fashion finery. Ida Saxton McKinley amassed a sizable jewelry collection and kept uncut gems around the White House for children to play with. Florence Harding — influenced by her close friend Evalyn McLean, the last private owner of the Hope Diamond — often wore a large diamond sunburst for formal occasions. Jacqueline Kennedy often preferred her Van Cleef & Arpels diamond and emerald engagement ring from John. F Kennedy over the 40-carat marquise Lesotho III diamond ring she received from Aristotle Onassis.

As we look to our first lady to be increasingly representative of the face of America, there has been a departure from the diamond days of Jacqueline Kennedy and a harkening back to the sensibility of Mamie Eisenhower and Barbara Bush. The former was famous for her costume jewelry bought at Woolworth’s and J.C. Penny’s, while Barbara Bush’s signature three strands of pearls were faux.

During Jacqueline Kennedy’s era, the burgeoning American fashion industry was still overshadowed by European couturiers and the first lady dressed accordingly. Today, Michelle Obama is embracing, and advancing, a much different domestic industry, one that is elegant, contemporary, and glamorously American.

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