Fashionable first ladies of the U.S.

Marketplace Staff Feb 8, 2011

By Jaclyn Giovis and Megan Larson

You can tell a lot about a lady from the way she dresses. And throughout American history, the White House has been a house of fashion, where trend-setting first ladies have inspired women in homes across America.

Today on Marketplace, we spoke to fashion editor and author Kate Betts, whose latest book, “Everyday Icon,” explores the style of Michelle Obama and other first ladies.

Mrs. Obama’s style might be the first that your average American woman can easily emulate, Betts says. She makes a point to wear clothes from mall stores like J.Crew, The Gap, H&M — and even clothes from discount retailer Target. Those choices help her image at a time when the country is battling a sluggish economy, Betts.

“She maintains a healthy distance from the fashion industry,” Betts says

In our photos slideshow, we look at first ladies who have inspired fashion history and helped to create it.

At first glance, Martha Washingtona’s style appears a bit frumpy. But it was very calculated, notes Betts. Mrs. Washington wanted the public to know her clothes were made in America. She avoided import clothing from England, and elsewhere in Europe, since the county had fought so fiercely for its independence.

Mrs. Dolley Madison was one of the most fashionable and influential first ladies, says Betts. She was experimental — wrapping turbans around her head and sticking feathers in them. “Everyone wanted to know what Dolley was wearing. It became a point of focus in Washington,” Betts says.

Mary Todd Lincoln was a fashionista, who never made excuses for her fine tastes. Despite being first lady during the difficult Civil War years, Mrs. Lincoln often fled to New York City to go shopping, where she would buy thousands of dollars worth of clothes.

Grace Coolidge embodied the flapper style of the Roaring ’20s — drop waist, sleeveless dresses and small cloche hats. She knew her boundaries, though. Her dress hems were never as high as those of other women at the time.

Mrs. Lou Hoover was first lady during the Great Depression. She was a natural tomboy who preferred to keep her attire understated in reflection of tough times.

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis hardly needs an introduction, but she was married to John F. Kennedy and served as first lady from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. She was the epitome of style and grace, but during her time in the White House every piece of clothing was a conscious choice, Betts says.

Oleg Cassini designed all of her clothes from the dresses and coats to the gloves and hats. She worked closely with him to make sure that everything she wore supported the image she wanted to present to the public, says Betts.

The idea was to emphasize her youth. Kennedy represented the “great generational zeitgeist” following the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, Betts says. Her style represented a fresh start at the beginning of the 1960s.

Nancy Reagan was another fashion icon. She took her cues from Hollywood, and got some grief for it from the public. The country was deep in a recession during her husband’s presidency, so Mrs. Reagan had to fight the perception that she and her husband were not connected to the people of the United States.

The American public can hardly say that about Mrs. Obama, says Betts.

As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.

Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.

Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.