The politics of fashion are alive and well. And if you’re in a position of power, there’s a major difference between wearing and serving a look. When an outfit meets the moment, it can spark a conversation much larger than its seams and stitching, and has the potential to reset the paradigm and weight fashion plays in any given circumstance. These 5 iconic First Lady fashion moments highlight the significance of American fashion and the influence it plays in shaping the legacy of the unique post.
When people think of First Lady fashion, no other name comes to mind more quickly than Michelle Obama. During her tenure at the White House, she reshaped the image of the position by updating the language surrounding how and why she chose to wear the fashion she did. A prime example is her appearance at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where she wore a custom-made silk dress by Detroit-based Black designer Tracy Reese. With that appearance, Reese’s work was launched onto the world’s stage, and she would continue to dress Obama for magazine covers, events and more.
One of the most fashionable political affairs was Nancy Reagan and her unwavering love for the color red. Throughout her time as First Lady and beyond, she would be seen more often than not in the vibrant scarlet hue. A prominent muse of Oscar de la Renta, she was styled for numerous black-tie occasions in custom gowns by the designer, including this waist-cinching number Reagan donned to accept the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
Elizabeth Anne “Betty” Ford set an undeniable precent as a politically active presidential spouse, passionately aligning herself with big issues while styled in forward-thinking fashions. One of the biggest cultural moments during the Ford administration was when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were invited to the White House for the State Dinner of 1976. There are many images of the Fords alongside the royal guests of honor, with my favorite being Betty in a soft green gown with elegant white embroidery at the shoulders.
Before her reign as First Lady, Barbara Bush got plenty of Washington experience thanks to her position as Second Lady, spearheading a national movement to raise awareness about illiteracy. After moving into the White House in 1989, she officially stole the spotlight with her classic looks. One of the most beloved was her red, white and blue polka-dot ensemble worn during her visit to Middlesex Hospital with Princess Diana — the same visit when the late princess famously grasped the hand of a man dying of AIDS.
Here’s an undeniable fact: Nobody rocks a power pantsuit as defiantly as Hillary Clinton. But this signature look is actually not what put the former First Lady on everyone’s fashion radar. For her first major White House outing to the 1993 National Governors’ Association winter meeting, she wore the so-called “cold-shoulder dress”: a formfitting Donna Karan gown with shoulder cutouts. The styling choice is still one of the most buzzed about First Lady looks of all time, proving that fashion is indeed a dialogue, not a monologue.