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State of the Union? A Dress Says a Lot

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 5, 1997; Page F05

On Inauguration Day, power shifts smoothly, graciously and calmly. In the bracing January air, under a noon sky, democracy works. Those who once governed -- whether with aplomb or great awkwardness, vigor or lethargy -- step aside to let others have their day. Or, sometimes, the inauguration stands as a marker of recommitment and renewal as the president accepts the task of governing for four more years.

Every four years we also revel in the possibilities of the future. We reveal the official face that we will show to the world. Perhaps it is elegant and grand, maybe stern and formal, or down-home and approachable. As the throngs crane for a view of the leader, it is as if they also are looking into a mirror.

While today's culture has a tendency to greet fashion flair in a man with suspicion, George Washington believed a gentleman of integrity should take great pride and care in his dress.

According to Claudia Kidwell, costume curator at the National Museum of American History, Washington was a clothes aficionado. He personally purchased clothing for himself and his family, cared passionately about trim, fabric and silhouette.

"Washington's sartorial interests were a symptom of the widely held belief that orderly and handsome dress was important for men of substance and authority," Kidwell writes.

Today, when we think about how we shall present ourselves for the next four years, what our style will be, we look to the first lady.

The ways in which she interacts, stands, speaks and dresses combine to express the subtleties of the woman, the administration and the people she represents. Such details do not portend the quality of a presidency, or the strength of a first lady's character. But they nevertheless hint at how the American people want to be seen, and who they are.

Jan. 20 is the last Inauguration Day of this century. A look back at the inaugural style of the past 100 years and beyond reveals a great deal about where American culture has been, and where it is going. Inaugural fashion is us.

To Each His Own
In the past century, the first lady always has borne the brunt of the public's clothing fascination. Her style choices for the inauguration are historically a popular obsession.

"Right from the beginning, we were interested in fashion," says Edith Mayo, curator of the first ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian. "The newspapers covering the nation's capital covered, early on, what everyone was wearing and who was seen. Human nature doesn't change very much."

The earliest inaugurations were more intimate affairs. James and Dolley Madison began the tradition of an official inaugural reception and ball in 1809. After the swearing-in, the two hosted a reception at their home and served punch and cake.

But by the 1840s, "we were very much into the idea that the president is of the people and the people have elevated one of their own. And so they have a right to participate," Mayo says.

The numbers of parties associated with an inauguration, and their formality, have varied depending on the times and the temperament of the president. Those who rose to power through the death of a preceding chief executive or a scandal-ridden administration had no inauguration. Woodrow Wilson believed such frivolities were beneath the solemn office of the presidency, especially at the start of his second term with World War I going on.

Calvin Coolidge didn't attend the inauguration for his second administration because he was mourning the death, from blood poisoning, of his 16-year-old son.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms but never attended an inaugural ball. He skipped his first, working through the night. Wife Eleanor went without him. FDR canceled the ball in 1937 because of the Depression. In 1941 it was canceled because of World War II. And in 1945, again, there was no ball.

Harry Truman revived the inaugural ball tradition during his second term; his was the first celebration to be televised.

War hero Dwight Eisenhower was a presidential party animal, attending two balls. For the start of his second term, Eisenhower increased that number to four. John F. Kennedy had five balls and wore white tie and tails. And to kick off his only full term, Lyndon Johnson also attended five parties. Gerald Ford had no inaugural ball because he stepped in after Richard Nixon resigned.

Jimmy Carter, who played the "Everyman president," wore a tuxedo to the inaugural balls but opted for a business suit at the swearing-in, whereas previous presidents had worn morning coats. He kicked off his own parade by walking from the Capitol to the White House. And while greeting guests at the White House, Rosalynn Carter took off her shoes and stood, in stocking feet, with her low-heeled pumps placed neatly behind her.

Ronald Reagan returned to elegance and formality. For his first term, he donned a morning coat for the swearing-in and wore white tie to a record-setting nine balls. Nancy Reagan wore a floor-length one-shouldered cream satin gown with a sheer beaded overdress by James Galanos. Some folks criticized the mature first lady for daring to bare one not-so-young shoulder. The size 4 former Hollywood hostess borrowed dramatic, diamond drop earrings from Harry Winston.

"For the first Reagan inaugural -- and there's a lot more excitement associated with the first -- there was a general feeling of we've had it with the down-home style of the Georgia Democrat, and we're going to return to a more glamorous, refined atmosphere. . . . No more peanuts in bowls," says Gahl Hodges Burt, White House social secretary during the Reagan administration. "It was reflected in the inaugural because some events were white tie, and it carried over with the Reagan administration."

Nancy Reagan eventually caused a tax flap and a fashion fiasco due to her habit of borrowing and not promptly returning high-priced designer duds.

The Reagans' second term was less formal.

"It was a conscious decision to make it black tie," Burt says. "People had attacked Nancy Reagan in the first term for the china and the tablecloths and things. She was being criticized for being too glamorous, and people were focusing on things that can be presented as frivolous." (Mary Todd Lincoln, by the way, also caught a great deal of flak from critics who thought that her spending habits were too extravagant and that her taste was highfalutin.)

This time there were 10 balls, to which Reagan wore black tie.

George Bush wore black tie to the inaugural balls, and Barbara Bush officially emerged as the glamorous grandmother who overcame her lack of a discernible waistline when she wore a navy gown, with a velvet bodice and side-sweeping satin skirt, by designer Arnold Scaasi.

Bill Clinton's first inauguration included the unofficial but wildly popular MTV Ball. For the swearing-in, Hillary Rodham Clinton chose a hat that resembled a UFO on its launch pad. Tongues wagged. That evening, she wore a violet ball gown by the little-known designer Sarah Phillips. While the dress looked a tad mother-of-the-bride-ish on television, it was a warm, rich shade of purple with elegantly glistening beadwork.

The first lady also wore opera-length gloves, which she eventually removed and, sadly, tied around the strap of her shoulder bag as if they were a couple of sweaty bandannas.

Clinton's second inauguration, which is supposed to be more low-key, boasts 14 official balls -- by all accounts a record. How many sequins, beads and paillettes will fly in the beastly ballroom crush?

Dressing for Success
For one evening, the inaugural ball gown is the most important dress in the country.

"Every first lady wants to have it right," Burt says. "It sets a tone for herself and for the country and for what the country can expect."

Adds Mayo: "They want to find a balance between fashion and elegance without being gauche in their spending. First ladies are very aware of that possibility of selecting a dress that's too lavish and expensive for a democracy."

Just as guests at a wedding look hungrily down the church aisle for the appearance of the bride in her wedding dress, the public waits for the emergence of the first lady. Having seen her thousands of times before, spectators are not anticipating the woman. It's the dress -- its magnificence, beauty, meaning.

"Like the wedding gown, it's a rite-of-passage dress," says Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute. "It's the one thing everybody gets to see and focus on. It always seems slightly archaic. Like a wedding dress, fashion-wise, it's fixed in amber."

During the earlier inaugurations, the dress was simply . . . a dress. It reflected the times and the tastes of the woman. People scrutinized and critiqued, but real analysis was yet to come.

Caroline Harrison, wife of Benjamin Harrison, was the first to bring the inaugural gown into the political arena, Mayo says, and to carry out a campaign issue through her clothing. Her husband, a trade protectionist, took up the rallying call of "buy American." Her inaugural gown was particularly significant because she found an Indiana artist to design the silk. An Upstate New York company made the luxurious fabric, and a New York City dressmaker constructed the actual gown, Mayo says.

Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Edith, was meticulous about the way she was portrayed to the public. And she carried over her fascination with preservation and conservation to her wardrobe. In the execution of her inaugural gown, she reused the skirt from one dress and topped it with a new bodice.

Even first ladies who did not have traditional inaugural evenings, and ball gowns, revealed clues to their personalities through their clothes. Grace Coolidge wore the best of '20s fashion. "Calvin [Coolidge] was tight about money, but on her clothing there were no limits," says Betty Boyd Caroli, author of "America's First Ladies."

Edith Wilson traveled to Paris to buy ensembles from the grand and influential fashion house of Charles Frederick Worth who is considered the founder of haute couture. And Eleanor Roosevelt, despite having a reputation for being at best uninterested in fashion and at worst a soul mate to Janet Reno, had a wardrobe of "exquisite clothes," Mayo says. They were remarkable for the quality of the fabric, the design and the cut. She had her nails manicured and had her hair done every week.

Mamie Eisenhower was something of a fashion plate, Caroli says. The military wife seemed to blossom once she entered the White House and became known for her signature narrow fringe of bangs and her love of pink. When the popular New Look, launched in Paris by Christian Dior, rolled onto American shores, the first lady embraced it.

"It was Americanized the way she did it," Mayo says. Mrs. Eisenhower, for instance, always wore her rather frilly charm bracelets with the highly structured and tailored style. "At the time, she was recognized as being a fashion- and trend-setter," Mayo says.

But it was Jacqueline Kennedy who set a formidable inaugural style precedent that subsequent first ladies have had the daunting task of following. While other women who accompanied their husbands to the White House generally had been mature veterans of years in public service and in fashion denial, Jackie Kennedy was young, style-conscious and willing to be noticed for her clothes. Her white satin inaugural gown was based on her own design.

Mrs. Kennedy and, later, Nancy Reagan "felt it was important to promote American designers. They wanted to bring back the period of grandeur during the 19th century," Mayo says. While many designers aspired to dress Kennedy, Oleg Cassini got the job, Mayo says, because he promised, "I'll design just for you."

Jacqueline Kennedy transformed Cassini into a household name. Her youthful look embodied a new spirit of American optimism, vigor and simple grace.

Scaasi saved Barbara Bush from the miserable fashion fate of Rachel Jackson and, 148 years later, Rosalynn Carter.

Critics attacked Andrew Jackson's wife for her lack of sophistication, basic tastes, disregard for fashion and rotund shape. Caroli writes that after Rachel Jackson's visit to New Orleans, the first lady's critics reportedly resurrected an old French saying: "She shows how far the human skin can be stretched."

Poor Mrs. Carter became the bane of Seventh Avenue after wearing a six-year-old dress to her husband's 1977 inaugural balls. "Rosalynn set fashion back on its ear," Mayo says. "The industry really wanted her to wear a fashionable gown." (And to keep her shoes on in public.)

Not only was it an old dress, but it was also a superb example of why the '70s were considered style-deficient years. Mrs. Carter had first worn the floor-length caftanlike gown with the unfortunate metallic gold trim to her husband's gubernatorial celebration. While the outfit had sentimental value to the first lady, it also reflected the new administration's frugal, down-home, just-folks nature.

The problem is that most Americans don't want the president and the first lady to look just like their next-door neighbors.

Scaasi helped Barbara Bush maintain her essential personality; he merely gave it more polish. And even though her husband's approval ratings wavered, the critics showed steady support for America's always appropriately dressed grandmother.

First Ladies' First Aid
Scaasi, already a successful New York designer, met Barbara Bush at a state dinner at the White House during President Reagan's second term. He invited her to come up to New York and see his collection. While it was an invitation tossed out casually as some 200 people swarmed about, Scaasi had every reason to believe that the then-vice president's wife might take him up on his offer. His first foray into the White House had been to provide ball gowns for Mamie Eisenhower and, later, Lady Bird Johnson.

In creating clothes for Mrs. Bush, including the inaugural gown, Scaasi was mindful of a first lady's limited amount of mirror time.

"She has to look great all day long, and she has to feel great at the beginning of the day," he says. "After 8:30, she may not get to look into a mirror again until after lunch.

"I did nothing to change Eisenhower, Johnson or Mrs. Bush," he says. "You have to work with them. They're human beings, after all. You have to ask them, `Are you happy? Do you like it? Do you feel good in it?' . . . They're being watched so carefully. This is a public figure, and they have more problems than any movie stars. [Stars] get a bad picture, it can always be made better. The first lady gets a bad picture, that bad picture goes down in history. You try to help them make the best pictures as often as possible."

And if the designer does his job right, Scaasi says, the first lady can "forget about the dress" and enjoy the evening.

"For the inauguration, the issue is social comfort," Kidwell says. On this rare night in modern times, people happily accept that appearances are more important than the reality.

Scaasi continues to design for Barbara Bush. In February, he will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Built for Comfort
Even though more thought goes into the inaugural gown and wardrobe today, somehow, the inaugural galas don't seem quite as elegant, sophisticated . . . swell.

In the early part of this century, photographs captured men and women looking dashing, confident and important. While folks wore white tie to the first Reagan inauguration, they lacked the elegance and magnificence of the people in the past. They dressed the part, but something was missing: social comfort.

Gone are the days when folks dressed for dinner, regularly wore evening wear and had numerous occasions during which to practice the arts of grace and fine manners. At the fanciest of inaugural galas, guests often act like teenagers at a prom.

This is the dilemma: Up until the middle of this century, clothes were constructed to shape the body into a particular form. For women, the breasts were shoved up high to produce a full bosom. A gentleman's jacket sleeve was curved because that's the way a proper man held his arm. Jackets had narrower backs because people stood more erect, with their shoulders thrown to the rear. Physical comfort was less of a concern than social mores. Clothes helped people to stand, sit and move in the accepted way.

In the 19th century, clothes fit tightly, like a glove "so that not a wrinkle should mar the pleasure of your viewer," says Kidwell. "The body was very much a show.

"From the 18th century woman to the '70s, the woman's body was molded, renovated and reworked by all of the things that went on before she put her dress on. The dress went on like a slipcover," she adds. "Men's construction was all in the suit coat. If they took off the coat, they also removed their fashionable shape."

Even in the '20s, the heyday of the carefree flapper, most women had to "wear quite severe foundation garments" to achieve a small-breasted, prepubescent physique, Kidwell says.

By the '70s we had thrown over social comfort for physical ease. Clothes became unconstructed and deconstructed. Formality declined and clothes no longer helped people remember to cross their legs just so, to take small, slow, graceful steps instead of long, lumbering ones. Women today put on evening gowns but walk as if they are wearing navy coatdresses. Gentlemen slip on tuxedos but swagger about as if they're in power suits. The truth behind the finery is visible.

A Democratic Style
Inaugural style of the past teaches no lessons in the evolution of fashion, says Richard Martin of the Metropolitan Museum. The clothes worn on that historic day never reflect the most cutting-edge trends from Seventh Avenue. But that is not the goal. Inaugural style aspires to please and soothe the greatest number of observers. It may hint at the individual personality of the wearer, but it speaks eloquently about traditions, continuity and hope.

Inaugural style epitomizes our grand idea of a historic day. Reality comes the next morning.

Special correspondent Dana Hull contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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