FASHION

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was known for her lavish style -- and Reagan red

Decades before First Lady Michelle Obama turned heads in her sleeveless frocks and the designer looks from Isabel Toledo, Michael Kors and Jason Wu, actress-turned-presidential wife Nancy Reagan earned attention for her high-fashion looks while also living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Reagan, who died Sunday at 94 of congestive heart failure, was not only influential during President Ronald Reagan’s eight years in the White House during the 1980s but also was known for her fashion and style choices. There was even a paper-doll book of her looks released in 1983, “Nancy Reagan Fashion Paper Dolls in Full Color” by Tom Tierney. 

While Reagan was her husband’s closest advisor and protector and promoted her own programs as first lady, she often was both lauded and criticized for her lavish tastes, from her days in Hollywood to her time in a new home in Sacramento when her husband was governor of California.

According to a Times obituary, “In 1968, writer Joan Didion interviewed Reagan in the new house, producing a piece for the Saturday Evening Post magazine titled ‘Pretty Nancy,’ in which she portrayed the governor’s wife as a superficial woman who smiled too readily and who seemed to be ‘playing out some middle-class American woman’s daydream, circa 1948.’ Reagan was deeply hurt by the story, which set the tone of coverage for years to come."

During her White House days, Reagan helped define 1980s American glamour, often photographed wearing red, or in lavish gowns and Chanel-inspired power suits. She favored American designers such as James Galanos (Reagan wore beaded Galanos gowns to the 1981 and 1985 inaugural balls) and fashion icons Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera. 

For the Reagans’ Vanity Fair cover in December 1988 before leaving the White House, she wore a belted red dress with a gold statement necklace and earrings. And decades later, she was photographed in a sitting-room chair on the lawn of her Bel-Air home in 2009, wearing a red pantsuit and shoes for a Vanity Fair story.

“I don’t like a lot of frills and fusses,” Reagan told W magazine in 2007 before the opening of a Ronald Reagan Presidential Library exhibit in Simi Valley, featuring some of the former first lady’s looks. “I’ve always gone for the more understated look.”

In November 2007, the presidential library opened an exhibit, “Nancy Reagan: A First Lady’s Style,” featuring 80 gowns, cocktail dresses and suits, all worn by Reagan during her White House days. As W put it at the time, “In the accompanying catalog, archival photographs show Reagan, who seems blessed with a secret talent for avoiding wrinkles, even when wearing linen, looking perpetually appropriate and perfectly pulled together.”

Reagan stood at 5 feet, 4 inches and was a size 2 during her White House years, and her festive 1981 inaugural gown, which Galanos provided for free, was estimated to be worth $10,000. The gown became part of the Smithsonian’s collection, W reported.

Reagan’s style tended to be a reminder of Old Hollywood glamour: the Adolfo suits she wore for her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign and her gingham shirts worn at the Reagans’ ranch near Santa Barbara. 

According to W, she wasn’t without her fashion faux pas, such as the rhinestone-studded Galanos pants she wore to an American Embassy dinner in Paris in 1982. However, for her official portrait, she wore a flowing deep-red gown by Galanos.

“I always liked red. It’s a picker-upper,” she told W in 2007. “I didn’t give it the name of Reagan red, but that became its name.”

Galanos, who first met Reagan at Beverly Hills boutique Amelia Gray in 1949, told The Times in 2007, “She knew her style very well, and it was always simple and elegant. If I tried to experiment, I could tell from her expression that she was thinking, ‘No, Jimmy.’ ”

In 2007, Herrera, who designed an emerald-green velvet gown that Reagan wore to an 1987 opera, also told The Times, “It’s important that a first lady be fashionable and glamorous because she represents the country and its style.”

According to the story, “The first lady even name-checked the designer to the press by announcing, ‘This is Carolina Herrera’ ” before the opera.

Beverly Hills-based designer Mark Zunino, who has made pieces for Beyoncé, Sofia Vergara and others, created dresses and gowns for Reagan as did his mentor and predecessor, designer-to-the-stars Nolan Miller, during the 1980s and ’90s.

“Nancy's sense of style was truly elegant and glamorous, never garish, especially when fashion tended to lean in that direction during those decades,” Zunino said in a statement on Sunday. “Though we were never sure whether it was the Hollywood studio system that had cultivated her style or it was an innate talent, Nancy was always dressed appropriately, glamorously, elegant and always in good taste.”

Long before Instagram, Reagan was aware of the statement her fashion and looks would make to the rest of the world especially during her White House days.

In 1981, Reagan first wore a Kelly-green Galanos wool coat to the Iran hostage release ceremony, “which became the sartorial equivalent of eggnog, when she began modeling it every year at Christmastime,” according to a 2007 Times story.

And for the 1981 afternoon wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Reagan opted for her “primary color palette of red, blue and green for a soft peach silk blouse and skirt by Galanos, with a matching shirt-coat and chiffon scarf,” The Times reported.

However, American media wasn’t a fan of Reagan’s high fashion.

Unlike the folksy Rosalynn Carter, who preceded Reagan as first lady, Reagan, in general, had a taste for style more akin to another first lady: Jackie Kennedy, who wore Christian Dior, Balenciaga and Givenchy. More recently, Michelle Obama has stayed on fashion trend, wearing a range of labels from J. Crew to Prabal Gurung during her husband’s two terms in the Oval Office.

Among one of her well-known public fiascos was when Reagan commissioned new state dinnerware for 220 place settings and elaborate serving items and raised $200,000 to cover the cost from private donations. She also was widely criticized for taking freebies from her fashion designer friends. 

During her life after the White House, Reagan, who was media shy, remained politically active. And she stayed true to fashion despite her older, more frail appearance. According to The Times’ obituary, Reagan “was photographed visiting her husband’s grave on the 10th anniversary of his death. Though in a wheelchair, she looked elegant in a cream colored pantsuit and earrings by a favorite designer, Kenneth Jay Lane.”

In one of Reagan’s final official public appearances, at her 94th birthday party in July 2015, the former first lady wore a rose-colored top, a floral-print scarf and gold earrings while seated and smiling near a birthday cake with pink posies. 

marques.harper@latimes.com

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UPDATES

7:45 p.m.: The article was updated throughout with new information.

4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with quotes and new information from Beverly Hills-based designer Mark Zunino.

This article was first published at 2:27 p.m.

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