From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, the woman in the White House serving as First Lady has always been a source of interest, focus and inspiration for the American public. Not surprisingly, women across the country take note of — and often copy — her personal style as well. Here is a rundown of some of America’s most notably stylish First Ladies and what defined each of their magnetic images.
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Dolley Madison (1809-1817)
Dolley Payne was raised in the Quaker faith and, along with her seven brothers and sisters, grew up wearing modest clothing in somber shades. She met James Madison as a young widow — having tragically lost her first husband to yellow fever — and after agreeing to marry out of her faith, she was expelled from the Society of Friends. Using this to her advantage, she celebrated what was widely reported to be a happy and harmonious marriage by wearing all the latest trends!
Madison quickly became known for her skills as a hostess and entertainer. Having occasionally served as White House hostess when her friend (and widower) Thomas Jefferson was in office prior to her official First Lady post, she was already used to the job. She also very quickly became notorious for her low-necked dresses and sometimes unusual fashion tastes. A striking example of this was her Inaugural Ball outfit, which received mixed reviews for including an outlandish turban accented with feathers.
Madison was popular with many, and not only for her fashion choices; she was chosen as the first private citizen to transmit a message via telegraph by Samuel Morse himself — which she no doubt did in a stylish outfit!
Frances Cleveland (1886-1889, 1893-1897)
Frances Folsom was only 21 when she married sitting President Grover Cleveland — the youngest First Lady in history. Additionally, she was the only First Lady to serve two nonconsecutive terms in office.
The young bride quickly became the subject of intense media interest, as well as a near-instant fashion icon for her many, many European outfits, which she bought in a pre-wedding tour of Europe. Her wedding dress itself — an ivory satin dress with orange blossom train — captivated the nation. In an unusual turn, she wore no jewelry at her wedding (except her engagement ring) and carried no bouquet.
American women loved and copied the charming First Lady’s every move. When newspaper reporters fabricated a report that she had stopped wearing bustles, the garment quickly lost popularity in the United States. Her haircut, called the “Frankie,” also became popular. It involved shaving the hairs at the nape of her neck and wearing a pouf in front.
Cleveland followed her own style instincts, going so far as to scandalize the Women’s Christian Temperance Union with dresses that exposed cleavage and bare shoulders. When members rallied a petition to get her to stop, she simply ignored them.
Grace Coolidge (1923-1929)
Grace Goodhue was destined to marry the man known as “Silent Cal,” but she was his opposite in personality. Beloved for her warmth, vivacity and fashion-forward style, Coolidge was a favorite of many.
Coolidge, with her slim and sporty figure, epitomized the perfect Roaring ‘20s look. She embraced the flapper style of the time by bobbing her hair and choosing straight dresses that showed her legs. Her husband loved her fashion sense and would stop to buy dresses especially for her. However, he disapproved of her wearing slacks and cropping her hair. He also wasn’t fond of her driving a car or talking politics in public.
Coolidge expressed her vibrant personality by wearing bright colors, especially red. She wore a gold locket by Charles Worth on behalf of the French garment industry as a token of their esteem.
Mamie Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Just as Grace Coolidge epitomized the ‘20s, Mamie Eisenhower (née Doud) made her style mark on the ‘50s. Her great love of the color pink sparked a nationwide mid-century décor trend that inspired kitchens, bathrooms, counters and household items in the shade.
In addition to her fondness for pink, she adored fur, pearls and glittery costume jewelry. She had a knack for pinching pennies, liked to clip coupons for the White House staff and was talented at mixing high- and low-end items in her wardrobe.
Eisenhower was also famous for her hairstyle, an up-do with short bangs that was widely copied during the era. It became such a trademark that she refused to change even when it was out of fashion.
True to her romantic nature, she was the first president’s wife to openly kiss the president in public!
Jackie Kennedy (1961-1963)
As one of the most revered style icons in history, Jackie Kennedy’s influence cannot be overstated. The graceful First Lady’s personal fashion sense is considered the ultimate mark of class to this day.
Perhaps more than any other First Lady, she commanded and defined the look of an era. Some of her signature items included sheaths, pillbox hats, pearls, headscarves and oversized sunglasses. She had a slate of favorite designers and often wore styles by Oleg Cassini.
After her death, it came out that she herself had helped design many of her gowns and outfits. Her influence was such that when she once wore a leopard coat, she was accused of helping deplete the leopard population worldwide.
Nancy Reagan (1981-1989)
Nancy Davis, like her husband-to-be Ronald Reagan, was a Hollywood actor for many years and brought that aesthetic to her personal style. She preferred overtly feminine fashions, which fell in line with her traditional values; however, she is also credited with bringing glamor to the administration. She threw many elegant parties with Hollywood guests in the White House and was responsible for much of its refurbishment.
Favoring the color red, she wore a particular shade of it so often that it became known as “Reagan Red.” Some favorite designers during her time in the White House were Oscar de la Renta and Galanos.
Reagan was criticized by some for accepting expensive fashion gifts from designers; however, she defended herself by saying the clothes were borrowed and were to be returned.
Hillary Rodham Clinton (1993-2001)
Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first blonde First Lady since Hannah Van Buren (the wife of eighth President Martin Van Buren, who technically never served as First Lady, as she died before he took office). Clinton’s light color is not the only hallmark of her hair over the years, though — she frequently changed her hairstyle while her husband was in office, causing a buzz each time.
Even more than her hairstyles, Clinton symbolized the modern working mother and wife with her collection of progressive pantsuits and “power suits.”
This educated and accomplished First Lady often expressed frustration that the press focused more on her style than her political and charitable work, something that will not likely change as she attempts her second run for the presidency in 2016.
Michelle Obama (2009-present)
Michelle Obama, the current First Lady, has always drawn much attention for her fashion sense — both positive and negative. This is one president’s wife who has a very defined sense of what does and does not work for her personal style.
Obama is known for her love of bright colors and understated design. She invited scandal early in her husband’s presidency by frequently going sleeveless and exposing her bare arms.
She’s also been dually criticized and praised for her reuse of gowns, including the dress she wore to the president’s first Inaugural Ball. However, perhaps this criticism came from the fact that her dresses tend to be strikingly memorable. Her 2009 inauguration gown put young American designer Jason Wu on the map.
Obama is also famous for buying clothing off the rack and has been photographed often picking from “everywoman” designers such as J.Crew, Asos and even Target.
As the country’s potential First Man (ever!), the former president has the option to create First Husband fashion from scratch. We’ll all have to see what direction he chooses to go should his wife win the presidency in 2016!