The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

That modern obsession with the first lady’s fashion? Ask Dolley Madison about it.

Fashion guru Tim Gunn joins design experts for a forum on first ladies and fashion at the National Archives in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. With Gunn are from left, designer Tracy Reese, who has designed for first lady Michelle Obama, Valerie Steele, director and chief curator, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Lisa Kathleen Graddy, deputy chair and chief curator of Political History and the First Ladies Collection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
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Think the media’s obsession with the fashion choices of first ladies — from Michelle Obama’s exposed arms to Hillary Clinton’s headbands — is a modern phenomenon?

History says you’re not even close. Apparently, Julia Tyler evoked European formality with her white satin gowns; Mary Todd Lincoln was a “therapy shopper” who liked scandalously low necklines, and Sarah Polk was aiming for a voluptuous look that would bring to mind (at least to modern eyes) pop star Nicki Minaj’s bodacious curves.

That’s according to a panel of fashion experts at the National Archives on Tuesday night, which included “Project Runway” star Tim Gunn, fashion designer Tracy Reese, Smithsonian curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy, and Valerie Steele, the head of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

In a panel discussion on FLOTUS fashion, the quartet thew out saucy commentary that would be at home on Gunn’s famously catty reality show (did Gunn really just call Eleanor Roosevelt “a little bit of a minx”?), but they also agreed on a more serious point: the way a first lady dresses communicates something concrete and meaningful about her husband’s administration.

“It’s a very easy thing to trivialize, but [a first lady] is representing the style of the administration,” Graddy said. So the less formal, less fashionable Carter years (during which Rosalynn Carter wore the same dresses over and over) gave way to the designer gowns and glamour represented by Nancy Reagan. Pat Nixon presented herself as Everywoman, while Jackie Kennedy was a modern sophisticate — all images that reflected their husbands’ public personas.

“Whether it’s more or less egalitarian, or more or less elite — that will play out in their clothing,” Steele said.

Gunn, who played the role of moderator, gave Michelle Obama the highest marks. Reese, whose dresses Michelle Obama has worn on several high-profile occasions, was also impressed. “She wears what she likes and she knows what looks good on her,” Reese said. “She’s not looking to past first ladies to see what they wore.”

And Gunn thinks Hillary Clinton has come a long way since her early days as first lady. Clinton, the panelists agreed, seemed at first not to understand the symbolic power of her sartorial choices. “She’s looking very presidential these days,” Gunn said. “It’s been quite an evolution.”

Despite the freight that hemlines and necklines and other fashion details carry for first ladies, sometimes, their choices come down to simple comfort. Graddy, who has curated the Smithsonian’s collections of inaugural gowns worn by first ladies, noted that Obama’s 2008 ensemble included a long dress complemented by very tall heels. But four years later, the veteran Obama opted for something with a little more function for that long night of dancing and hand-shaking: “no train and these little kitten heels.”

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