As the Obamas leave the White House and the Trumps settle in, the media will focus its attention on the style of Melania Trump and reflect back on the style of Michelle Obama. Interestingly, a century ago very little attention was paid to the fashion and style of the First Lady, exception being Frances Cleveland, wife of the 22nd President, Grover Cleveland.
That is not the case in 2017. Fashion pundits and the media consistently examine, comment, and criticize the style of the First Lady. Since Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the fashion style of the First Lady has been an important aspect of the First Lady’s character. And though Rosalyn Carter and Barbara Bush were not distinguished for the fashion sense, with FLOUS-elect Melania Trump, a former fashion model, we can expect a parade of great American and European fashion design.
Fashion Reverie had the unique opportunity to speak with Jill Carey, associate professor of fashion at Lasell College. She is the curator of the Lasell Fashion Collection and an expert of the style of First Ladies.
Fashion Reverie: What is your position at Lasell College?
Jill Carey: I teach fashion history at Lasell College. I have also curated the Lasell Fashion Collection that I started in 1996.
FR: Is the Lasell Fashion Collection centered on First Ladies?
Jill Carey: Not entirely, the collection begins in the early 19th Century and we have pieces through the millennium. We have examples of European and American design, as well as 20th century designer fashion. It is a wide range of working and exhibition collection. Pieces from the working collection are used in the classroom.
FR: How did you become interested in the fashion style of the First Ladies?
Jill Carey: Because I teach fashion history, I believe First Ladies are the face of the nation. And I believe their style identifies the style of the times and of their husband’s administration. I do believe their garments and dress demonstrates the social and political life of the nation. First Ladies’ appearance is extremely important, not only for American society, but also for global cultures as well.
FR: When did you decide to curate garments from the First Ladies past and present and what were some of the challenges collected these garments?
Jill Carey: Lasell College does not have a curation of First Ladies’ fashion as such, but what I have put together is research particular to First Ladies. We have pieces in our collection that reflect and relate very closely to some of the First Ladies’ fashion choices. We have specific pieces that relate to First Ladies style in a particular way. We do have a wide selection of Arnold Scaasi garments that relate to what Barbara Bush wore to her husband’s inaugural ball.
FR: Depending the era, which First Lady would you say brought the most style to the White House?
Jill Carey: There are three First Ladies that are pivotal when it comes to White House style. The first is Frances Cleveland, Grover Cleveland’s wife. What is interesting about her is that she was 20 years younger than her husband and when she came into the White House she embraced Parisian style. As she evolved as the First Lady, she became more interested in American dressmaking design. The most important American dressmaker for Mrs. Cleveland was Lottie Barton, who was from Baltimore, and she created wonderful garments for Mrs. Cleveland.
Jackie Kennedy is of course my obvious next choice. There is so much information to support that once Jackie Kennedy became a style icon then the expectation for the First Ladies’ style became more apparent. She really set the First Ladies’ style apart from other First Ladies. She wore Oleg Cassini in the White House, as well as Givenchy and Chanel. She also used American designers such as Norman Norrell. She also purchased pieces from Chez Ninon, which was located in NYC and had individual pieces made for Mrs. Kennedy.
Finally, we have Michelle Obama whose evolution as First Lady has been remarkable. She always referred to herself and Barack Obama as “part of the American story.” She enlisted Jason Wu to design the first inaugural outfit, as well as the second. She is stylish and practical and prefers lesser-known American designers—Bryan Lars, Charles Harbison, Duro Olowu, and Tracy Reese. She has been on the cover of American Vogue three times and voted one of the best-dressed women in the world. Michelle Obama also wears J. Crew, a brand and style that ties into Michelle Obama’s affection for casual elegance and simplicity.
FR: How did Michelle Obama’s style and her husband’s presidency find a symbiosis, reflecting the times we live in?
Jill Carey: Michelle Obama is a magnificent First Lady in every way. She is beautiful and intelligent. Obama’s presidency has been an intellectual presidency, and Michelle and Barack Obama, together, are a presidential couple of the people. She has embraced a style that really speaks to the American people. There are aspects of her wardrobe that every woman in the US could embrace.
FR: How has American interest in the style of the First Ladies evolved over the years?
Jill Carey: Jackie Kennedy solidly established the American public’s interest in the style of First Ladies. After Kennedy was assassinated, she coined the phrase ‘Camelot,’ referring to John F. Kennedy’s administration. From that point on the media focused heavily on the fashion and style of the First Lady. There is now a global interest in the style of the First Lady and that all began with Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
FR: Which First Ladies have attached themselves to elite fashion houses and brand and their affiliation with said fashion houses have made those brands more well known and accessible to American consumers?
Jill Carey: Michelle Obama is the primary First Lady who comes to mind because she introduced the American consumer to emerging designers or designers that were not household names. Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush wore Arnold Scassi and Oscar de la Renta a lot; Nancy Reagan even wore John Galliano. However, Barbara Bush and Nancey Reagan’s choice of designers already had a lot of traction in the fashion industry when they started wearing those said designers/brands.
Still, Michelle Obama has catapulted the careers of the designers that were not so well known. Consider Jason Wu and Tracy Reese. Barbara Bush did help Scassi’s career because he did not have a fashion empire at the time.
FR: Michelle Obama has been criticized for the wardrobe budget that was bestowed upon her by Congress. Has the wardrobe budget for the First Lady grown over the years and have other First Ladies been duly criticized for the expense of their wardrobes?
Jill Carey: There was concern that Jackie Kennedy was spending too much on her wardrobe. But, it wasn’t openly criticized like the negative criticism Michelle Obama received. There was concern that Jackie was supporting European designers and not enough American fashion designers. There was also criticism that Jackie was spending too much money redecorating the White House, so the concern of the cost of her wardrobe was connected to the expense of redecorating the White House. Nancy Reagan was highly criticized for what she was spending on gowns during the Reagan administration.
There is a lot discrepancy on what is gifted to the First Lady and what garments are paid for out of the White House budget. First Ladies travel a lot more internationally now, and they are hostesses to a huge array of events and receptions. And sometimes the First Lady stands in for the President when he cannot attend special events. The expectation is that the First Lady will look sophisticated and well turned out for all of her duties, so of course this demands a substantial budget for wardrobe.
FR: What kind of style will Melania Trump bring to the White House and who will be her designers of choice?
Jill Carey: Her style is elegant minimalism. She also dresses in a monochromatic style and one of her signatures is her pairing of American style with luxury accessories.
We know Ralph Lauren designed the white pantsuit she wore at the Republican Convention Acceptance Party. That said; we assume that Ralph Lauren will be one of the designers that she chooses while she is in the White House. With Trump’s very pro-American rhetoric and all the discussion of homegrown manufacturing, Ralph Lauren fits in with the coterie of American designers that Melania will probably wear. This could also be a great opportunity for an American accessories designer to come to the forefront, designing Melania’s handbags, shoes, and jewelry.
Dressing Melania is very controversial right now. Many designers—Sophie Theallet, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and others—have come forward expressing that they will not dress her because of the anti-Muslim, xenophobic, anti-LGBT, and the racist slant of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and speeches.
FR: Melania was a fashion model before she married Donald Trump. While modeling she has done a lot of fashion editorial that were quite revealing. How does Melania Trump’s current personal style elucidate her previous image as a fashion model?
Jill Carey: I have been thinking about First Ladies who come into the White House with young children. Melania has a ten year-old son with President Trump. He is on the threshold of his adolescence. What she done as model prior to her marriage was a part of her past life, and I hope that as First Lady she will evolve to an image and role model that is acceptable to the American public.
Melania’s spin doctors and advocates are already spinning and capitalizing on her role as a mother. This election has been so controversial and polarizing that media is focused on much more than what Melania has done in her previous career. Her role in the White House will be primarily as a hostess.
FR: How do presidential administrations and their policies affect fashion?
Jill Carey: The fashion industry really stands alone and set its own standards and trends. Perhaps, in the past conservative administrations may have had some influence of fashion and style, but today things are very different. The Obama administration did have a positive impact of J. Crew’s collections and market viability.
There is a lot of conversation on President Trump being a minimalist but I don’t believe that will direct affect on fashion. Trump’s cabinet is all multi-millionaires and billionaires and maybe we see advances in the luxury market that trickles down to consumers. Lastly, fashion does reflect what is going on in the world so maybe some protest fashion will emerge because of the Trump presidency.
—William S. Gooch