The beauty of creativity is that it can’t happen without collaboration — and it especially can’t happen without collaboration from past influences.
Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama took some creative influences from the past when she wore a 1950s A-line dress purchased from New York Vintage at the annual White House holiday party. Her second-hand garment caused a media storm because at least to their knowledge, no first lady had ever worn “used clothing” to a gala event before.
But times — both fashionable and political — are changing, and vintage fashion is no longer a hush-hush admittance between women of celebrity prestige and power. Michelle Obama takes cues from the past because she is an advocate of fashion’s economical and artistic influences of the present. The fashionable first lady has established herself not only as a fashion icon, but as a fashion icon with an agenda.
She’s been quoted as saying, “The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.”
Thanks to the power of digital media and society’s hunger for immediate communication, we can track what Michelle Obama wears to every public event and its ripple effects on everything from store sales to designer collections to an upcoming spread in Vogue Magazine.
But in the ’60s and ’70s, fashion journalism was just a whisper amongst the press house corps. Actually, it probably was nothing more than a joke to most — the fashion news of the day was not what color Jackie Kennedy wore or how high Pat Nixon’s heels were. Still, what images are available from the first lady reigns of Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford and yes — especially Michelle Obama — tell the visual truth: Fashion mattered in the White House because it impacted an economy of arts with strength in opinion and its resulting buying power.
In other words: fashion sells, fashion makes jobs and fashion moves culture.
Keep scrolling for my analysis of the fashion agendas of five fashionable first ladies — and how you can take their styles and wrap them into your own style resolutions for a vintage-infused 2011 and beyond.
First Lady Michelle Obama
Agenda #1: EXPOSED SHOULDERS
Floor-length evening wear with one-sleeve or halter top necklines exposing bare upper chest and shoulders
Agenda #2: A-LINE DRESSES
A-line dresses which emphasis the waist and poof into an “A” shape. Popular in the 1950s after being introduced to the fashion markets by designer Christian Dior
Agenda #3: THE COLOR YELLOW
Outfits consisting of matching canary yellow to light yellow and gold pieces
First Lady Jackie Kennedy
Agenda #1: HIGH-NECKLINES
Jackie’s high necklines paired with pearl necklaces blended chic with conservative and a subtle hint of sexiness
Agenda #2: PILLBOX HATS
When stepping outdoors, Jackie O was known to wear pillbox hats, which originate from British military headgear circa World War I
Agenda #3: ROUND FRAME SUNGLASSES
Jackie popularized “bug eye” sunglasses, channeling a celebrity who wished to remain incognito
First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson
Agenda #1: PEARL NECKLACES
Lady Bird Johnson was almost always seen wearing her classic, short strand white pearls when posing for pictures or at a public event
Agenda #2: COUNTRY STYLE
Lady Bird was an advocate of preserving nature and establishing wild flower parks, and her love of the great outdoors was stylishly illustrated with prairie-inspired dresses and eye-catching, wild brights
Agenda #3: STRAW HATS
Even in her old age, Lady Bird appreciated a wide-brim straw hat
First Lady Pat Nixon
Agenda #1: FLORAL BROACHES
For added suit jacket flair, Pat opted for flower broaches over wearing the day’s standard metal broaches. She appended them on her collar and immediately below her neckline
Agenda #2: YELLOW
Pat and Michelle Obama share some fashion commonalities: a serious penchant for the color yellow. Pat even decorated a room in the White House with the color, posing for pictures in her sequin beaded yellow inaugural ball dress
Agenda #3: FASHION FUN
Pat wore busy patterns and wasn’t afraid to show excitement for the camera. While other first ladies maintained a stoic or conservative smile when photographed, quit ea few pictures show Pat’s genuine emotion and a warm charisma [not to mention affection for Big Bird!]
First Lady Betty Ford
Agenda #1: THE COLORS ORANGE & RED
Betty often wore feminine power colors like orange and red. She was argued to be the most politically active first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, and her fashion choices illustrated resolve to dress the part for her sought-after political duty
Agenda #2: INFORMED ELEGANCE
After the stock market crash of 1929, Betty Ford supported her family as a model and dancer, later moving to New York City to pursue a dancing and modeling career. So it’s no surprise that her fashion choices possess an elevated excitement than seen from within the closets of previous first ladies. Much like Michelle Obama, Betty Ford chose clothing accentuating her best features and fashion know-how. She was not shy of shiny, sparkly and seductive
Agenda #3: NECK SCARVES
Betty’s signature style piece became the neck scarf, which she would tie as an ascot with dresses or tucked into a suit jacket for a pop of under-collar color