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First Ladies With Style

Updated on January 28, 2014

Style In The White House

Behind every great man is a great woman, at least that's what they say. It definitely seems to hold true for the office of the president of the United States. There were many First Ladies that would have made fine presidents...some even better than their husbands! The White House has long been a place for the long suffering wives to really let their lights shine after their husbands have finally been elected president and nowhere is it more evident than in the fashion trends they set while First Ladies.

Now I know many people will say that's objectifying women and many First Ladies were very bright, vibrant, intelligent people who generally, like beauty queens, had a platform or agenda they took into the White House, but honestly...How many people remember Jackie Kennedy's platform and how many people remember her pink Chanel suit with matching pillbox hat? Case closed.


From First First Lady Martha Washington to Michele Obama

Many people are heralding Michelle Obama as a fashion icon and she could very well be. She has impeccable taste and is not afraid of color or style. But she by no means has cornered the market as most stylish First Lady. Many of her predecessors were also shining fashion beacons trying to lead us from the dark poverty of our closets into fashion stardom. Let's begin at the beginning...

Poor Martha Washington...always portrayed in portraits as a plump, grandmotherly looking woman with a double chin, and perhaps she was in her later years. However,an amazingly fashionable and dare I say it, hot, pair of shoes that Martha wore when she married George have been recovered. These shoes send a message about the woman who wore them and one of the big messages is Martha Washington was too sexy for her shirt... I mean shoes. The shoes are purple and at one time had large shiny buckles and are covered in silk and sequins. Purple shoes for a bride..? Go, Martha!


Abigail Adams & Dolly Madison

Abigail Adams, although a strong advocate for women's rights as first lady, also loved to be fashionable and host parties. She was the first First Lady ever to live in the White House and considered herself a fashion icon, hoping American women would copy her style as opposed to the French styles of the time with the very low-cut bodices. However, she failed miserably in getting American women to veer away from anything French.

Not so Dolly Madison who, after marrying James Madison, was excommunicated from the Quaker religion for marrying an Episcopalian and proceeded to set the White House and American society back on its ear. She was known to be quite attractive and at 5'6" was fashion model height by the standards of the day. She became quite the trend setter for women all over the world and became the 'hostess with the "most-est" at all of the White House functions. She actually decorated the White House, long before the much publicized redo staged by Jackie Kennedy.

First Lady Elizabeth Monroe
First Lady Elizabeth Monroe | Source

First Ladies of Fashion

Elizabeth Monroe, wife of James Monroe, was extremely cosmopolitan, so much so that she spent quite a bit if her time living in Europe instead of the United States. She came from a wealthy family and although she was highly admired in Europe for her fashion sense, in her own country she was seen as a bit of a snob.

President Polk's wife, Sarah sucked a lot of the fun out of the White House parties, although portraits of her show she was very attractive and beautifully dressed. The dress pictured below was one of her evening gowns. Because she was very religious, she banned liquor from the White House as well as dancing, so her receptions were pretty stiff affairs. Her saving grace as a First Lady with style is the fact that she hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner in the White House.

Mary Todd Lincoln was groomed from the beginning of her life to be the First Lady. She attended a French boarding school where she developed her sense of style and a taste for very fine things. Unfortunately, she carried that taste into the White Hose during a desolate time in United States history when our country could hardly afford to be extravagant. Besides spending the entire four year Congressional appropriation for the refurbishment of the White House in just a few months, she was known to spend a ridiculous amount on her wardrobe. She was hardly a trendsetter, though, because her temper and insane jealousy of other women did not endear her to many.

One of Sarah Polk's dresses which is now in the Smithsonian
One of Sarah Polk's dresses which is now in the Smithsonian
First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln
First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln

Jackie O's Popular Predecessors

An amazingly popular First Lady who was the only woman ever to have the title of First Lady without being married to the president was Harriet Johnston who was the niece of James Buchanan. She was such a fashion trendsetter that when she lowered the neckline of her inaugural gown another two and a half inches to show more cleavage, instead of being scandalized, American women lowered theirs, too!

Grover Cleveland's wife, Frances, also had a little cleavage issue as well. To say she was a popular First Lady was an understatement. Thirty years younger than Grover, the pretty Francis was so admired that she was imitated right down to her hairstyle. Their daughter Ruth even had a candy bar, Baby Ruth, named for her. She was credited for the bustle being phased out of style simply because someone said that she said she wasn't going to wear them anymore. Ohhh, the power the First Lady wields! Mamie Eisenhower was also a popular favorite, although not for her cleavage, but for her love of the color pink. Because of her, the color pink became the rage for everything from clothing to wall paint. Her clothes and her infamous too short bangs were copied as well.

The lovely Frances Cleveland in her wedding dress
The lovely Frances Cleveland in her wedding dress | Source

Jackie Kennedy

If anyone had ever been born, bred, and trained for the role of First Lady, it was Jackie Kennedy. Bright, beautiful, wealthy and well-educated, Jackie took the country by storm and won the hearts of the Democrats and Republicans. She influenced style tremendously during her time in the White House with her classic designer clothing, oversized sunglasses, and extreme fashion sense. She sketched many of her own clothes as First Lady and became very close with designer Oleg Cassini who became the official White House courtier, who designed over 300 outfits for her. Jackie and Cassini not only got American women to don pillbox hats, but adopt simple shift dresses with classic detailing including small bows, oversized buttons, and short boxy jackets. With Cassini, Jackie created a timeless style that is still popular today and will be copied and admired for years to come.


Mrs. Tricky Dicky & High Stepper Betty Ford

No one would ever call Patricia Nixon a fashion maven, although she was a very attractive woman, but she set a fashion precedent for all First Ladies that sent the fashion industry buzzing. She was the very First First Lady to be photographed wearing pants for a magazine. And everyone thought Hilary and her pantsuits were cutting edge!

It's not very commonly known that before her marriage to Gerald Ford, Betty Ford was a dancer and fashion model. She was as stylish as she could be during the Ford administration considering the hideous clothing that was being designed during the 70's. She rocked her mother-of-the-bride dress at daughter Susan's wedding, which is more than I can say for Susan...what is that on her head!?


Nancy Reagan

Glamour came back into the White House for the first time since the Kennedy administration with the election of Ronald Reagan. Both of the Reagan's being former movie stars led to quite an array of famous guests and very ritzy parties at the White House. Nancy Reagan, petite and elegant, favored designers like Bill Blass and Oscar De La Renta. She was most known for being one of the few First Ladies to favor red, creating a whole new terminology to describe the color, "Reagan Red". So many designers were clamoring for Nancy Reagan to wear their clothing, they were loaning or gifting her dresses, just so she could be seen in them. This ended up getting the Reagan's into some hot water with the IRS for accepting gifts and not reporting them. With fashion, sometimes comes complications!


Michele Obama

Flash forward to Michele Obama. From her first days in the public eye, she's been a fashion influence and inspiration. Telling American women that you can look absolutely fabulous wearing something straight off the rack, she announced from the start as a First Lady her preference for clothing from stores like the Gap. She walked proudly along the inaugural route with her husband in a pair of green shoes and a pair of matching green gloves from J. Crew. She wore little known designers and made them household names overnight. And everyone envied her toned and muscular arms which she showed off in sleeveless gowns quite often.

A First Man?

We've gone through the history of the First Ladies since Martha Washington and found style has been important to women for decades, even centuries. We've seen the influence that popular First Ladies can have on style in this country and sometimes in others as well. So where do we go from here? Who will be our next First Lady with style? Or will our next stylish spouse be a First Man who is married to a Mrs. President instead of a Mr. President? Will what he wears be anywhere as important as what SHE wears? One thing is for certain, fashion, our interest in it and love for it, will never go out of style.


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    • agentmomo profile image


      7 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      I also found it very interesting seeing all the pictures of the clothing change over all those years! It must have been a hard hub to make if you had to look up the biographies of all of those first ladies!

    • DIYweddingplanner profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      Thanks, Crystolite, glad you enjoyed it!

    • crystolite profile image


      7 years ago from Houston TX

      Useful and informative hub which is quite interesting especially i enjoyed viewing those photos a lot.

    • DIYweddingplanner profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      Thanks, Tess. It took me long enough, but I had to read the bio of every single First Lady to see if they were even interesting enough to ake the cut!

    • Tess45 profile image


      7 years ago from South Carolina

      Excellent and a fun read. Good job!

    • DIYweddingplanner profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      Thanks, Rontlog, glad you enjoyed it!

    • rontlog profile image


      7 years ago from England

      A well written and stylsh hub. I really enjoyed reading about America's first ladies. Thank you.


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