A few years back when I was writing The Madcap History of the Skirt, my editor was adamant that I include a section about the fashions of America's First Ladies. I remember her saying: "People will love it, and it will SELL," words every writer wants to hear, but I was still cool on the idea. I wanted the book to be fun and cheeky and the first ladies seemed so…dry. But once I began my research I was quick to warm up to first lady fashion. I was looking at their dresses with an eye homed in on the evolution of their skirts, began reading about the inauguration dresses and was sidetracked for days.
So I was delighted to find this new video posted from the Smithsonian about the First Ladies exhibit at the National Museum of American History in D.C. (Best inexplicable, somewhat random cutaway line: "We're going to have to lower Barbara's purse.")
Can I just say that Lisa Kathleen Graddy and Sanae Park Evans have my dream jobs? Nearly 20 years ago I spent a summer interning in the basement of the Asian textiles department of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, cataloging and preserving antique textiles and fabrics and wishing I was riding my bike in the sunshine. Had I known that there were jobs like these—cataloging and preserving dresses like Michelle Obama's little number from Jason Wu—I might have stuck with it!
I've seen this exhibition several times since I was a child, and I'm looking forward to seeing Obama's dress when I'm visiting in May. I wish they allowed
video and photographs inside the museums; I'd love to make a visting-the-first-ladies-of-fashion-exhibition film.
Isn't Jackie's inaugural gown (above) exquisite? I believe she designed it herself. I'm a bride-to-be, and Jackie's dress is pretty much a dream wedding gown. Do you think the Smithsonian would let me borrow it for my upcoming nups?
Other fun, first-lady fashion bits of trivia not mentioned in the video (but available in my book!): Mamie Eisenhower was a dedicated fashion plate who had the good fortune to land in the White House just before Christian Dior launched his "New Look." Mamie adored the style and bought mountains of his work, although this fabulous blush-colored gown covered in rhinestones (above) was created by one Nettie Rosenstein. But my favorite gal was Edith Roosevelt, a thrifty first lady who used the skirt from one dress and the bodice from another to create a budget-friendly inaugural gown, à la Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink.
Oh, and as for my editor's prediction: She was right. I did dozens of radio interviews after the book was released, and nearly every host asked about the first-lady section of the book. One station even made that small section the entire focus of the interview. So I guess the moral to this story is: Listen to your editor!
Photo credits: Jackie Kennedy: Alfred Eisenstaedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images; Mamie Eisenhower: AP Photo