This January saw the inauguration of Joe Biden as our 46ᵗʰ president. While we’re already well into spring, we can’t stop thinking about the fashion of that day. And clearly, we aren’t the only ones! While I was typing away at my computer, publishing commentaries on the inauguratory looks of Dr. Biden and the women of Washington, I took some time to listen to the fashion experts’ thoughts.
On Friday, March 12th, from 1-2 p.m. EST, Fashion Group International (FGI) and New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) teamed up to present a virtual panel discussing the “iconic looks from our First Ladies of government.” It covered the role that fashion plays in history, politics, and American culture as a whole. Moderated by senior critic-at-large for the Washington Post, Robin Givhan, the discussion included three experts in the field of fashion: co-creative director of Oscar De La Renta and Monse, Fernando Garcia, writer, archivist, and fashion historian, Carson Poplin, and Director and Chief Curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Dr. Valerie Steele. It also featured images from both the Isabel and Ruben Toledo Archives and the Oscar De La Renta Archives.
At the onset of the pandemic, NYWIFT launched a series of virtual talks for members and non-members to enjoy. Nearly 100 programs later, , “Fashion & The First Ladies,” seemed a fitting way to commemorate Women’s History Month. After introducing the panelists, Givhan kicked off the talk with some interesting facts on former First Ladies. Did you know that Teddy Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, was an early believer in sustainability? She used pieces from various other gowns of hers to construct an inauguration look. Did you know that Caroline Harris was the first First Lady to inject politics into her inaugural gown? Her husband Benjamin’s campaign slogan was “Buy American.” Hence, in the year 1889, Caroline found an Indiana artist to design silk, an upstate New York firm for manufacturing the silk, and an NYC dressmaker to construct a gown from that silk.
According to fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, dressmaker to First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush, the designer’s role is to “try to help them [the Ladies] make the best pictures as often as possible.” We can expand this idea and substitute looks for messages and symbolism. The First Lady wants to capitalize on her moment in the public eye and express her views, values, and how she represents the country as a whole. Clothing proves a valuable tool in this endeavor as it lives in the visual but is rooted in symbolism. A gown can be beautiful, but what other meanings might it carry? During Michelle Obama’s tenure in the White House, America saw a progressive First Lady who ushered in a new social age with her contemporary fashion and helped stimulate American industry by championing American – especially Black – designers like Tracy Reese, Bryon Lars, and Laura Smalls.
As a public figure, the First Lady, whether she intends to or not, opens her wardrobe to the people, allowing them to actively participate in the world of fashion by wearing clothing they, too, could purchase. Press for an inauguration look might inspire awe in its audience, while photographs from a casual spring outing with the family spark public feelings of relatability. For certain, as icons, they are style-makers. I might see a coat worn by a First Lady and love it so much that I decide to buy it for myself. After designing Dr. Jill Biden’s turquoise inauguration gloves, which the First Lady wore with a matching Markarian tweed, the glove maker Wing & Weft saw a flurry of requests to buy those same gloves. We can feel both reverence for and a connection to a First Lady, or any other public figure, through their clothing alone.
I could continue , but I’ll end by saying that“Fashion & the First Ladies” proved a thought-provoking conversation and an hour well-spent. I’ll certainly be checking out more talks to come!
NYWIFT is a non-profit professional association for women in the film, television, and digital media industry. With nearly 2,500 members in the New York City area, it is part of a network of 50 women in film chapters worldwide, representing more than 15,000 members.
FGI is a global, non-profit, professional membership organization with 5,000 professionals in the fashion industry and related industries. Its mission is to create a forum for discussion and connection while providing members with digital resources.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (4/20/21) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Poster for “Fashion & The First Ladies”