A peek under the First Ladies’ veils
I never gave much thought to how society judges women by their clothes.
And by society, I mean me.
During a recent presidential debate, I didn’t think twice about tweeting that Hillary Clinton’s yellow power suit resembled Uma Thurman’s outfit from Kill Bill. Then I saw this tweet:
Ana Marie Cox is right. Men (all former presidents included) just aren’t judged by their clothing like women are. The same can’t be said for their wives.
Fashion has always been deeply woven into the first ladyship, as I learned from historian and author Feather Schwartz Foster’s new book exploring the rich history of First Ladies through their closets. It’s called Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from The First Ladies’ Closet (more on that title later), and she was kind enough to send me a copy to review.
I agreed to review it because I’ve always enjoyed the stories Foster shares on her presidential history blog, but I was a little nervous because fashion is not my strong suit. (In fact, I only have one strong suit and I save it for when my friends or I get married.) I was glad to find that no prior knowledge or passion for fashion is required to appreciate Foster’s stories.
The “closet” items – inaugural dresses, hats, a Red Cross uniform, etc. – are really just a gateway into fascinating mini-biographies of each of the First Ladies from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower. Foster brings these very different women to life with intimate glimpses of who they were under their real and metaphorical veils.
Howard Chandler Christy’s official White House portrait of Grace Coolidge with her dog Rob Roy.
Foster recounts in her book how the controlling President Coolidge wanted her to wear a white dress for her portrait. When the artist said white wouldn’t contrast enough with the dog, Coolidge quipped, “Dye the dog.”
The artist won out in the end.
What I dig about this book is that it’s not a collection of trivia – it’s stories about real people who faced unique challenges. I loved learning that while crossing Europe, Louisa Adams saved her carriage from imperial soldiers by putting on her son’s little soldier hat, holding up his toy sword, and yelling “Vive Napoleon, vive le France!”
She even wrote a play about her journey called “Adventures of a Nobody” that stayed in a drawer for 75 years. Full disclosure: I might have teared up a little during a passage about Julia Grant seeking treatment for her lazy eye. Feather Foster will give you the feels.
If the title Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas doesn’t entice you, here are some alternate titles I came up with that might be a little more my style:
- Julia Grant’s Got Her (Lazy) Eye on You
- Jane Pierce’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Life
- Give Mary Todd Lincoln Your Hat and Nobody Gets Hurt
- Abigail Adams Doesn’t Give a Sheet
- Grover Cleveland’s Guide to Marrying Your God-Daughter
I finished Foster’s book on the way to Washington, D.C, which was perfect timing. It was my first time in the capital city and she convinced me to check out the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Knowing their stories gave deeper meaning to the impressive display of inaugural gowns and personal items.
|Dolley Madison’s shoe and fan at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History|
These ladies had to strike a delicate balance between being dignified and fashion-forward without appearing frivolously extravagant. They had to dress appropriately for their status, their age, the season, the occasion, and the times. Reading about the history of how they’ve been portrayed gave me a greater sense of the demanding role fashion plays in womens’ lives. So far that delicate balance has been the burden of the First Lady, but one day soon it may be the burden of the President herself.
I wonder where the Smithsonian will put that inaugural gown.