Portraits of Virginia’s 10 living first ladies, all but one portrayed in inaugural ball gowns, were unveiled Monday in the courtyard at the Virginia governor’s mansion.
Five Virginia artists, all of them women, worked mostly from photographs to create the paintings, a privately financed project that the current first lady, Maureen McDonnell, dreamed up as a way to honor first ladies’ contributions to the state.
The shimmery peacock-blue dress that McDonnell wore to her husband’s ball in January 2010 still fits. So she put it on and sat for artist Loryn Brazier at the governor’s mansion.
But that was not an option for Katherine Godwin, the 95-year-old widow of Mills E. Godwin, who was elected governor in 1965 as a Democrat, and in 1973 as a Republican. Brazier, who painted Godwin's portrait as well, worked from a newspaper clipping to capture her in a peach, Pat Nixonesque shirtdress with a wide collar and a bit of sparkle in the bodice.
The portraits, which will be displayed in the mansion and the Capitol, offer a montage of first lady fashions through the years. They run the gamut from a prim to va-va-va voom.
Lynda Bird Johnson Robb fell into the former category, pictured in a blousy-sleeved gown paired with a single strand of pearls. Susan Allen was in the latter group, wearing a sparkly off-the shoulder number with a series of scoops along the top. It evoked both “Dynasty” and the Batman logo.
Allen, who was just 32 when her husband, George Allen, became governor in 1994, said the glamorous gown was meant to telegraph “a sense of youth” — much like the swingset installed on the mansion grounds at that time for the Allens’ growing family.
“It wasn’t a prom dress,” she said. “It was very different from other first ladies’ dresses.”
If Robb, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, looked back on her own early ’80s gown and thought it looked prom-y, she did not let on. At the unveiling of the portraits, she had her husband, Chuck Robb, take her photo next to the portrait. And not just once. It seems that a man can run a state and serve two terms as senator but still fail to snap a photo to his wife’s satisfaction.
Chuck Robb later told this reporter that he’s good with a real camera — he has several very sophisticated models — but cell-phone photos were another matter.
Eight of the 10 living first ladies attended the event, as did Gov. McDonnell and former governor Jim Gilmore. Tim Kaine and George Allen, who are running against each other for U.S. Senate, were not there, but their wives greeted each other cordially. Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, complimented Susan Allen on her bright, ruffly-collared dress, saying, “I like your pink!”
Also absent were Godwin, who lives in a nursing home; and Lisa Collis, the wife of former governor and current Sen. Mark Warner, who was said to have had a a scheduling conflict.
Roxane Gilmore was the rebel among the group, opting to be painted in the red business suit she wore to her husband’s inauguration rather than her ball gown.
“I did more in my suit,” Gilmore said. “That [gown] wasn’t me. I wanted to be remembered for what I did beyond the first night.”