It seems amazing to me that the first time I went to the White House was in 1957, when I was 21. I had gone to meet Mamie Eisenhower, who had admired my designs because of clothes I made for Ruth Buchanan, the wife of President Eisenhower's chief of protocol.
As I remember it, the first dress I designed for Mrs. Eisenhower was a white chiffon with panels of leaf green floating from the waist. Mrs. Eisenhower was a pretty woman with beautiful skin, and she loved dressing up. She would always say: "Mr. Scaasi, remember that the skirt must be able to move easily -- as you know, I love to dance!" Her fittings were all done in the White House, in a bedroom on the second floor that has since become the family dining room.
In addition to evening dresses, I also designed what were known in the '50s as "afternoon dresses" for the first lady. (Today, they would definitely be considered short dinner clothes.) We did several coats for Mrs. Eisenhower, and a full red wool melton was one of her favorites. She wore it everywhere.
My visits with Mamie at the White House were always memorable occasions. We would have tea or a light lunch accompanied by Coca-Cola -- we had a great deal of fun together. I had just opened my own business in 1956, so the first lady's acknowledgment of my talent was a marvelous beginning for my career.
In 1958, I received a call from a buyer of Bergdorf Goodman. She was very excited that Mrs. John F. Kennedy had just ordered two of my evening dresses. One dress, in particular, I remember; it was ruby satin with long sleeves, a high neck and a bell-shaped skirt. It typified the restrained elegance of the future first lady.
Though I didn't meet Mrs. Kennedy until the early '60s, she continued to order my clothes through Bergdorf's.
By the time I met Lady Bird Johnson, I had visited the White House several times. The Scaasi clothes she owned were always purchased through the shop. (At the time I was doing only ready-to-wear.) Liz Carpenter, her press secretary, selected the clothes to be shown to the first lady. President Johnson liked my clothes so much that he insisted on purchasing dresses for his sister, Rebekah, as well.
My most exciting White House experience to date has been with first lady Barbara Bush. She is wonderful to work with -- intelligent, warm and witty.
I first met Mrs. Bush during the Reagan administration at a state dinner. She mentioned how much she admired my clothes, and I asked her to come see the collection. In the beginning, we only did evening clothes for her, but once she became first lady, we did most of the wardrobe she wore in public.
We had done several long dresses for Mrs. Bush for her husband's inaugural festivities, but she kept us guessing as to which one she would wear to the inaugural balls. I went to Washington a great deal during that time. The fittings were done at the vice president's house, which was in disarray as it was being prepared for the incoming vice president, Dan Quayle, and his family. Mrs. Bush was cheerful throughout, and finally gave way and told me she would wear the blue velvet and satin dress that became her famous "Barbara Blue" inaugural gown.
The week leading up to the inauguration was spectacular. Washington was a circus of celebration, and Mrs. Bush wore a dress of mine every evening. She looked wonderful, and this was confirmed by the "oohs!" and "aahs!" of the crowd as she entered each evening's gala. On the night of the inaugural balls, I was at Union Station, and when she arrived through the doors wearing the blue satin and velvet gown, a roar went up from the crowd. She was radiant -- the most dazzling, glamorous grandmother we had ever seen. I still get chills up my spine remembering her entrance. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. When she and her husband reached the podium, Mrs. Bush saw me in the crowd. She waved and nudged the president. He looked straight at me and gave me the thumbs-up. What more could any designer ask for?
I have been to the White House on numerous occasions since that evening, and Mrs. Bush and I have become great friends. I went to more than a dozen state dinners, meeting the most interesting heads of state, including Queen Elizabeth, who was really delightful. Mrs. Bush wore a gown of mine on each of these nights.
One visit that stands out particularly is when Mrs. Bush gave her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian. The ceremony was to be held quite early in the morning, and the Bushes kindly invited me to stay at the White House the evening before. I slept in the Lincoln bedroom, and the next morning Mrs. Bush and I were driven to the Smithsonian together. When we arrived, Mrs. Bush surprised me by reading a letter written by Mamie Eisenhower in 1959, introducing me to the curator of the Smithsonian's costume wing; now, almost 40 years later, the dress I had made for the wife of the president of the United States was being installed in this venerable museum.
I had gone full circle and become a part of history. Certainly, this could only happen in America. CAPTION: Arnold Scaasi escorting Scaasi-clad Barbara Bush.