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Jill Biden’s Vogue cover is making waves — but it shouldn’t

Vogue’s first-lady profiles have a storied history, one that traces the evolution of the role without being partisan

First lady Jill Biden delivers remarks before the start of the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on July 8. The issue of Vogue magazine featuring Biden on the cover comes out Tuesday. (John Raoux/AP)

First lady Jill Biden’s August Vogue cover is aggressively inoffensive. It’s neither lushly romantic like the Christmas 1998 issue cover, which draped then first lady Hillary Clinton in red velvet Oscar de la Renta, nor awkward, like February’s Converse-clad Vice President Harris cover. There are none of the divisive bangs or bared arms that got people talking about Michelle Obama’s three Vogue covers. Biden wears an office-appropriate blue Oscar de la Renta dress dotted with flowers, a patriotic look that’s more symbolic than chic.

Yet the cover has generated controversy, and some confusion, about the role of the fashion magazine in presidential politics. The right-leaning media seized on the fact that no Republican first lady has appeared on the magazine’s cover — and specifically not Melania Trump. In fact, Trump did appear on Vogue’s cover — on the occasion of her wedding in 2005.

The fawning 14-page spread helped facilitate Donald Trump’s career-saving turn on “The Apprentice” (which had launched in 2004) and eventually, his presidency. Though Melania Trump was invited to appear in the magazine as first lady, she refused, becoming the only first lady since Bess Truman to skip the softball interview and photo shoot that have become as much a part of the first lady’s unofficial duties as decorating the White House for the holidays.

A tradition that began with a single photo of Lou Henry Hoover has grown into multi-page interviews and fashion shoots as the first lady has evolved from a behind-the-scenes helpmeet into a public figure, with opinions, causes and (sometimes) a career of her own.

As Lady Bird Johnson reflected, “the first lady is and always has been an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband.” Yet her image belongs to the nation. First ladies are “difficult to get close to because they are so conscious of what they represent and of their worldwide audience,” Vogue photographer Horst P. Horst confessed. The White House itself looms large in the background of many of Vogue’s first-lady portraits, physically and metaphorically.

Biden is only the third first lady to appear on the magazine’s cover in its 130-year history. Clinton was the first, so the cover story is a relatively recent trend rather than a hallowed tradition. But the magazine has profiled first ladies, both Democrats and Republicans, within its pages for almost a century. Edward Steichen photographed Hoover shortly before her 1929 move into the White House. The issue appeared just before the stock market crash and the Great Depression, which caused subscriptions to surge among readers in search of escapist glamour.

In 1941, Steichen photographed Hoover’s successor, Eleanor Roosevelt, wearing her third inaugural gown. But it was Mamie Eisenhower who made portraits of first ladies a Vogue staple. President Dwight D. Eisenhower commissioned Horst to take a portrait of his wife in the White House ballroom in 1957. “She wanted to look grand,” Horst remembered. The president liked the photo so much that he displayed it in the Oval Office, and Horst persuaded him to let the magazine print it. It was the first in grand Horst portraits of first ladies in evening wear — often their inaugural gowns — shot on location at the White House.

None of these women appeared on the magazine’s cover — not even Jacqueline Kennedy, a stylish socialite whose photo had already been in Vogue so many times that the magazine commissioned artist René Bouché to draw her first-lady portrait. (Bouché’s sketch of President John F. Kennedy would appear on the cover of Time a few months later.) Her less-stylish successor, Johnson, found her photo shoot with Horst a chore. “I put in one of those long two hours getting dressed up in a red evening dress and going downstairs, first to the Red Room and where I do think it looks beautiful; and then into the Blue Room, posing for Vogue magazine,” she recorded in her diary. “The picture will be in color — a cover picture perhaps — and it simply devours time.” Vogue used the Blue Room picture, and it did not appear on the cover. Nevertheless, the profile helped to legitimize a first lady who had inherited the mantle unexpectedly. “She is definitely the first lady,” Vogue pointedly insisted.

Rosalynn Carter brought a sewing machine to the White House in 1977 and wore an old gown to the inaugural ball. When Horst arrived to shoot her portrait in the Green Room, her hemline was so uneven that he had to pose her sitting down, with her back to the camera. It was his only photo of a seated first lady, and the only one not in evening dress. Vogue diplomatically characterized Carter’s knee-length skirt and cardigan as part of the “new informality” at the White House. At a time of rampant inflation and economic anxiety, it was a good look — and one that fit Vogue’s own editorial agenda. When Grace Mirabella took the helm in 1971, “women weren’t buying fashion magazines,” she remembered. As women entered the workforce in record numbers, Vogue pivoted from flamboyant fashion shoots and society gossip to more accessible, issue-driven coverage, and circulation soared.

But Horst, for one, was relieved when glamorous Nancy Reagan arrived on the scene in 1981. The former actress was “wonderful to photograph” and “a real professional,” he said. She granted him a 45-minute sitting — his longest at the White House — in the regal environs of the Red Room, wearing her one-shouldered James Galanos inaugural gown for the last time before it went to the Smithsonian. It was Horst’s final hurrah, too; Arthur Elgort would photograph Barbara Bush, whose grandmotherly warmth was an antidote to Reagan’s brittle chic.

In 1988, when Anna Wintour became editor, the magazine once again changed its approach in hopes of attracting a larger audience. Models disappeared from Vogue’s cover in favor of actresses — a move that revitalized sales and reflected the growing symbiosis between the fashion industry and the Hollywood publicity machine. Pop stars, princesses, athletes, Oprah and, eventually, first ladies joined them. And political figures from both parties continued to have a place in the magazine’s pages, with Condoleezza Rice when she was national security adviser, Nikki Haley when she was governor of South Carolina, Sarah Palin when she was governor of Alaska, and first lady Laura Bush and twins Barbara and Jenna all making appearances. Rather than reflecting partisan bias, the lack of Republican first ladies on the cover reflects how new the tradition is.

Annie Leibovitz took over the first-lady beat after joining Vogue in 1993, shooting Clinton in a plain black Donna Karan turtleneck for the inside of the December issue after Clinton’s team rejected the magazine’s initial choice, an expensive off-the-shoulder velvet gown, as “a bit much.” It was a fitting introduction to a first lady who refused to be defined by her husband’s job, and who “is seen in few frivolous moments because she is not frivolous,” as Vogue put it. But, as so often happened with Clinton, the photos divided America. “Do they help shatter old prejudices in this male-dominated capital that women who are stylish cannot be taken seriously?” Maureen Dowd asked in the New York Times. “Or do they revive old-fashioned assumptions that even accomplished women secretly want to be desired as beautiful objects?”

It’s an age-old question, and one that Biden — the only first lady to hold a doctoral degree and a job outside the White House — is likely to face, as well. Vogue’s first-lady portraits have become an American tradition, and “traditions exist in our lives because there’s a need — and an enormous appeal to them,” the magazine noted in 1981. It called the 57-year-old Reagan, who had been criticized as “anachronistic” by a younger generation of women, “a first lady who believes in tradition. We’re glad she does. When the day comes to photograph a First Gentleman — how odd, it sounds, how right — we hope he does too.” Traditions may be anachronistic, but, just like fashions, they’re always evolving.