A mention of first lady style typically invokes iconic visions of Jacqueline Kennedy in pearls and a pink pillbox hat. But a new exhibition devoted to Nancy Reagan’s signature look proves that this former White House doyenne more than held her own when it came to glamour.
The yearlong fashion retrospective, which opens Monday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, showcases 80 looks beginning with Reagan’s simple I. Magnin wedding suit and the gold brocade Galanos evening gown she donned for her husband’s second gubernatorial inauguration in 1971. Like most of the other timeless gowns and suits, the ornate dress could easily sidle into a contemporary collection. You won’t find any poufy Christian Lacroix-inspired skirts, linebacker shoulder pads or other telltale ‘80s fashion scars here.
“She knew her style very well, and it was always simple and elegant,” says designer James Galanos, who first met Reagan in 1949 at the Beverly Hills boutique Amelia Gray and went on to collaborate with her for two White House terms. “If I tried to experiment, I could tell from her expression that she was thinking, ‘No, Jimmy.’ ”
A recent peek at the exhibit at the museum near Simi Valley co-curated by exhibition designer Rush Jenkins feels like a stroll through history. The chronological layout, organized in chapters that range from “White House Beginnings” to “Public Servant and Spokeswoman,” illustrates her roles and corresponding styles.
For the first presidential inauguration, Reagan -- always a size 2 -- wore a red Adolfo dress and coat bright enough to enrage a bull. During Cold War visits to the Soviet Union, she opted for muted, wool suits that reflected the stoicism of that country. For context, plasma screens show clips of the Reagans in action, and silk-screened quotes from designers, the former president and Reagan herself.
Certain pieces became staples. The Kelly green Galanos wool coat she first wore to the Iran hostage release ceremony in 1981 became the sartorial equivalent of eggnog, when she began modeling it every year at Christmastime.
For the afternoon wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana in 1981, Reagan smartly eschewed 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 British press declared her “elegantly turned out.”
The American press, however, was not as flattering toward her penchant for high fashion. Its first tip-off? The white, one-shouldered Galanos adorned with diamante daisies that she wore with long gloves as first lady of California to the gubernatorial ball in 1967. Many of her gowns -- adorned with intricate beadwork -- would glitter like crystal chandeliers in the right light.
“It’s important that a first lady be fashionable and glamorous, because she represents the country and its style,” says Carolina Herrera, who designed an emerald-green velvet gown that Reagan wore to the opera in 1987. The first lady even name-checked the designer to the press by announcing, “This is Carolina Herrera.”
Her glamour sometimes spurred more ire than awe. Reagan was widely criticized for her extravagance during the economic downturn, and she took her biggest drubbing for commissioning $200,000 worth of china for the White House in 1981. A year later, however, she shocked journalists and her husband alike when she paraded onstage during a Gridiron Dinner wearing a schizophrenic get-up that included a feather boa and yellow galoshes. The first lady belted out “Second Hand Clothes” to the tune of “Second Hand Rose.”
“The reporters saw that she could laugh at herself and it became a turning point for her and the press,” co-curator Jenkins says.
In 1988, the Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded Reagan a Lifetime Achievement Award for her loyalty to U.S. designers and devotion to fashion. (Reagan’s glamorous legacy has yet to be repeated, but it may have gently prodded the first ladies who followed. Hillary Clinton donned a red Oscar de la Renta gown for a 1998 cover of Vogue.)
The exhibit’s final room offers a poignant look at Reagan’s life after her husband’s death. A display of letters from the late president includes such endearing monikers as “Career Girl” and “Darling Wife.” But it’s the letter that opens with “Dear Glamour Puss” that feels fitting.