A New Exhibit on First Ladies Plays Down Their Fashion Choices


DALLAS, Tex. — At the preview party for a new exhibit on first ladies at the stately and colonnaded George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located here on the campus of Southern Methodist University, guests clustered around the handful of dresses that were among the 45 items on display.

And therein lies the challenge of first-lady retrospectives. We only want to see the clothes.

In an era when the attire of world leaders’ spouses is scrutinized for all manner of overt and covert messaging, the organizers of the exhibit, titled “First Ladies: Style of Influence,” sought to tell a different story. “We are trying to go beyond the surface points of fashion and delve into how these women have really shaped history,” said Natalie Gonnella-Platts, one of the show’s organizers and a deputy director at the George W. Bush Institute, the 43rd President’s think tank.

But judging by what captivated those attending the preview, that will be hard to do. The glass cases containing the clothes were the main attractions, even though they were more utilitarian than dazzling — the gray pantsuit Laura Bush wore to Afghanistan, the blue skirt suit Barbara Bush wore on the cover of the book she wrote from her dog’s perspective and a dowdy black velvet evening dress worn repeatedly by Eleanor Roosevelt.

The most arresting dress in the show was a replica, and possibly apocryphal: a simple, Empire-waisted red velvet dress that, legend has it, Dolley Madison had made out of White House curtains that she saved from British arsonists in 1814. Nearby was her actual snuff box. Apparently, offering a pinch of snuff was how she cozied up to political figures when she wanted a favor.

Also on display were Lou Hoover’s Girl Scout uniform and movie camera, Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio, political cartoons featuring Lady Bird Johnson and various gifts given to Pat Nixon while traveling abroad.

“The artifacts that were chosen are really entry points into larger stories of how various first ladies used the platform to create change,” Ms. Gonnella-Platts.

To tell those back stories, the exhibit relied on visitors reading wall placards, which described, for example, Mrs. Madison’s “uncanny ability” to put people at ease and thus, practice soft diplomacy. Visitors not fixated on the clothes might also learn about Jacqueline Kennedy’s politically laden choice to have her daughter attend an integrated kindergarten. Tapping on the exhibit’s interactive video displays, one might discover that Mrs. Johnson held West Wing strategy sessions and lobbied members of Congress on behalf of highway beautification. Or, that Mrs. Roosevelt acted as her disabled husband’s eyes, ears and legs while he was in office.

The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 1, doesn’t broach how first ladies have coped with their husbands’ infidelities (Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Trump among them). Curators also didn’t acknowledge that many, if not most, of these women were reluctant first ladies and felt stifled and suffocated by the role. Indeed, the first first lady, Martha Washington, wrote to her niece, “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else.”

More than two centuries later, Michelle Obama told Oprah, “It’s the little things you miss,” like just walking out the front door without discussing it with anyone. At the White House, “Sasha opened her window once and there were calls,” she said. “It never opened again.” And, of course, there has been much speculation about Melania Trump’s low visibility and what some have interpreted as her miserable demeanor, giving rise to #FreeMelania memes and conspiracy theories that the president has hired a body double for some of her public appearances following reports of his serial philandering.

Still, there were a few first ladies who seemed to relish the role. The Bush Museum’s exhibit tells us that Julia Tyler encouraged publicity and was the first first lady to be photographed. She wore look-at-me feather headdresses and lavish gowns. To receive guests, she sat atop a raised platform with a coterie she called her “maids of honor.” Likewise, Frances Cleveland, the youngest first lady, and the only one to marry in the White House, seemed to enjoy the attention. She was so popular that a false news report that she was abandoning the bustle hastened the demise of the faux derrière.

Which brings us back to fashion and our fascination with what first ladies choose to wear and not to wear. “Fashion is communication,” said Jessica Gavit, 33, a designer and art director, who was at the preview party at the Bush Museusm, wearing glittery block-heeled ankle boots. “It speaks as much to the interests, thoughts and values of the person as the quotes,” she said, referring to several quotes attributed to first ladies printed on the walls of the exhibit. Upon close inspection of the garments on display, Ms. Gavit noted that some of the seams under the arms appeared a bit stretched and surmised it was due to “all the waving.”

While we may not fully comprehend the rarefied world of first ladies, we all make choices about what to wear and how we want to look. Perhaps that is why we might relate more to what these women wore than what they did while in the White House.

“I look at the clothes and think, ‘I would have worn that,’ or ‘No, I wouldn’t wear that,’” said Julie Young, a stay-at-home mother who came to the preview party wearing leopard-print cigarette pants and claimed to be 58 but looked at least 15 years younger (as women in Dallas often do).

Ms. Gonnella-Platts said judging first ladies by what they wear was sexist and wrong. “Granted we don’t have an example of a first gentleman yet, but if you look internationally at men who have filled this role, the Philip Mays, Joaquim Sauers, Dennis Thatchers of this world, we don’t scrutinize what they are wearing, don’t scrutinize what they say, don’t think about where they may and may not appear,” she said. “I think as we continue forward and someday have a female head of state, we may begin to re-evaluate our perceptions of the spouse’s role.”

But male spouses of world leaders have, in fact, been similarly scrutinized, albeit maybe not to the same degree. The fashion press has written approvingly of the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband, Philip’s “sexy” suits and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, Joaquim Sauer’s “eclectic layering of tweeds and choice of old-fashioned bow ties.” Moreover, our Presidents have also been subjected to sartorial critique. President Obama was dissed for his “mom jeans” and President Trump, for his Scotch-taped and low-hanging neckties.

So maybe scrutinizing first ladies’ fashion is not so much sexist or vapid as the thing we feel most qualified to judge given we all wear clothes and likely fancy we have some sense of taste. As future first lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, in 1780, “A little of what you call frippery is very necessary toward looking like the rest of the world.”

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