The woman in red: Nancy Reagan with President Ronald Reagan listening to a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev, left, at the White House in 1987. (Gary Herrshorn/Reuters)

Nancy Reagan was more than the color red.

It might have been a favored hue and one that became her signature, but she brought a love for a fashion, a recognition of style and a delight in beauty into the White House at a time when it had long been pushed aside.

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She indulged in fashion — not politically vetted, blandly uninspired, Jane Doe fashion but the truly dazzling variety. She wore Oscar and Bill and, most notably “Jimmy.” That would be James Galanos. An American couturier, he worked in California, outside of the Seventh Avenue grind, creating hand-crafted clothes that were technical wonders and wondrously expensive.


Nancy Reagan in the one-shouldered Galanos gown she wore on the night of the first inauguration for President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Ushering this sort of fashion into the White House was an act of great risk and little reward, and Reagan did not do it with much grace. She became the center of scandals by borrowing clothes and not reporting it and not returning them. And then she became a scandal again when she promised she’d change her ways and then didn’t.

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The clothes that she chose were not particularly trendy but they were fashionable. A woman of her age and position didn’t bother with trends; she cultivated style. There was the 1981 Galanos inaugural gown — a one-shoulder, white sheath that glittered with crystals. It was surprisingly bare for a first lady and it was decidedly glamorous. But then the inauguration was a white-tie affair and so it was also appropriate. She wore knickers, which did not go over well with the critics but were part of the fashion conversation at the time. They were a silhouette that dated to the heydays of Yves Saint Laurent, and a woman got no greater style validation than that of Saint Laurent. And, of course, Reagan wore red — which became her color.


Nancy Reagan with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Reagans at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. (AP)

Reagan appreciated the power and satisfaction of vanity. It’s a trait that has negative connotations, but it’s one that, perhaps, more women should possess. To have unapologetic certainty in one’s own abilities and attractiveness seems like relatively good advice in navigating the world.

Reagan’s public presentation had an unmarred sheen. She was sometimes derided as too plastic, too brittle. Her style was precise, not easy or nonchalant. Fashion was armor and a point of pride. And to walk into a room feeling well-dressed and polished can do much to bolster one’s courage in the face of folks who are keen on turning a deaf ear.


Nancy Reagan laughs with Ray Charles, center, and Willie Nelson at a salute to country music at Constitution Hall in Washington. (Ira Schwarz/AP)

For all the political problems fashion caused her, Reagan made a space for a woman in the White House to publicly enjoy fashion and not treat it like a chore that must be endured for State Dinners and the like. She turned 60 just after moving into the White House. She was an older woman who did not succumb to the idea that she had aged out of the fashion system. She was deeply engaged and enthralled. She was proudly, defiantly vain at a time — even more than now — when all corners of popular culture declared that women her age didn’t or shouldn’t care about how they looked.


President Ronald Reagan, right, and first lady Nancy Reagan pose for photographs with French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette before a State Dinner at the White House in 1987. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

The subtext of this notion of the vanity-free senior citizen is one of surrender: A woman stops thinking about how she is seen because she knows that she is no longer seen at all.

Reagan did not surrender. She took up arms in the form of satin and cashmere. And with the certainty that Oscar or Bill or Jimmy had her back, she stepped into the light.


The Reagans greet guests John Woodson Ficklin and Sarah Ficklin at the 1983 state dinner for Bahrain. (Courtesy of the White House)

See also:

Nancy Reagan dies at 94; first lady was a defining figure of the 1980s

Friends remember Nancy Reagan: A legacy all her own

Before she was first lady: Nancy Reagan’s acting career

Communism and crutches: The unusual story of how Nancy and Ronald Reagan met

Robin Givhan at Paris Fashion Week