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First lady dresses on display at Nixon Library are draped in American history

First ladies have carefully crafted their fashion statements since long before Melania Trump made headlines for her style earlier this year.

In 1972, Pat Nixon wore a tea-length bright red coat, the same shade as the Chinese flag, on her and her husband’s historic trip to the country, which was emerging from decades of self-imposed isolation. She wore the same coat multiple days in a row on her tour, alluding to her working-class roots in front of her Communist hosts. The trip was avidly followed by television viewers around the world, as live footage displayed a country that had been closeted in shadows for a generation. The now-iconic coat, like the visit, was considered a success.

That coat and more than 20 other dresses and articles of clothing will be showcased at a new exhibition, “Why They Wore It: The Politics and Pop Culture of First Ladies’ Fashion,” on view through Sept. 16 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

“The coat is very important to many of our Chinese guests because of what it represented, and what it represents, which is luck and friendship,” library Director of Strategic Planning Jim Byron said. “It was a deft diplomatic move and an important statement.”

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The collection includes a sparkling, bell-sleeved Dolce & Gabbana dress worn by Trump at a concert during the G7 Summit in Sicily last year. This is the first time one of Trump’s dresses will be displayed in a museum since the Smithsonian received her inauguration gown last year. The last time a sitting first lady provided a dress for the library to display was in the 1990s, when Hillary Rodham Clinton lent her wedding dress.

Fashion is an increasingly popular choice for museum exhibits. The First Ladies Collection is continually one the biggest draws to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“Clothing is the most immediate and emblematic way a first lady has to express herself,” Nixon Library exhibit guest curator Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a leading expert on first ladies, said. “Even though they’re dressing for the public, they’re also dressing for themselves … the person and the persona become blended in what they choose to wear.”

This is particularly true in the case of inauguration gowns, Anthony said.

“That is a very conscientious statement,” he said. “That is the first statement and ends up becoming the most endearing. It becomes a trademark and part of their iconography.”

A seven-part luncheon and lecture series is planned as well, with speakers including Anthony, designer Victor Costa, fashion historian Molly Sorkin and several others. Every first lady will be discussed throughout the series. Each luncheon will include courses that first ladies served their White House guests.

Anthony wrote his 13th book on first ladies as an accompaniment to the exhibit. The 140-page book, “Why They Wore It: The Politics and Pop Culture of First Ladies’ Fashion,” features more than 100 images, including every first lady. Nearly 50 pages of the book are devoted to Nixon.

Quiet strength

This exhibition is the first major retrospective of Nixon’s style and its political and pop culture contexts. She ordered gowns from Elizabeth Arden, and was especially fond of the designs of Count Ferdinando Sarmi, who headed the fashion house for most of the 1950s.

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“We found out that Mrs. Nixon liked to wear dresses that had pockets,” Byron said. This propensity was based more on utility than aesthetics, as she preferred to pass correspondence directly to the president herself. Her practicality also extended to a preference for “non-crushable” clothing that she could easily travel with, and she even was known to do her own ironing.

In her earlier life, Anthony said, Nixon emphatically stated her desire to not marry. She worked at a variety of jobs while pursuing her education. When she attended USC on a partial scholarship, she worked at the Bullocks on Wilshire Boulevard in the late 1930s, where her tendency to wear pants raised eyebrows.

She has been regarded by some as a stealth feminist.

“There was a real devotion to the idea of equality,” Anthony said.

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This came out in some of her husband’s platform positions, such as his full endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972.

Pat Nixon supported the Roe vs. Wade verdict and women’s right to self-determination, and pressed President Nixon to consider appointing women to the Supreme Court, Anthony said.

She wore the shortest dresses of any first lady until her time, and was the first woman to wear pants in public as first lady, in what was considered an important cultural turning point.

Centuries of iconic style

Many first ladies developed their own signature styles. Jackie Kennedy even enlisted her own personal designer, Oleg Cassini, while she was in the White House. The desire to promote a political agenda through fashion extends all the way back to Martha Washington, Anthony said. She made a point of only wearing American-made garments, beginning with her first public appearance as “Lady Washington,” as she was often called.

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“Not all [the first ladies] had the same degree of intentionality,” Anthony said.

It varied depending on a first lady’s personal exposure to public life, her health, her wealth and other factors.

“But even very early on, there was still a consideration that they were public figures,” he said. “This emerged from governments where there was always a queen or a consort.”

This awareness was already embedded in the nascent nation’s collective consciousness by the time of its first presidents, he said.

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Dolley Madison sought to elevate the status of the country to something more equal to that of a European monarchy, so she used sumptuous clothing to help achieve this, at a time when women’s political muscle was very limited. She took to wearing a turban in her public appearances, an au courant fashion choice that was a nod to America’s French allies while also evoking the notion of a crown or circlet without the gold or diamonds.

Anthony noted that media technology played a large role in the dissemination of the first ladies’ fashion choices, from vague descriptions in broadside newspapers to woodcut portraits to the advent of photography and moving pictures. Now, with Instagram, a curious public can see within seconds what the first lady is wearing at every engagement.

There are many apocryphal stories of first ladies’ fashion choices over the centuries. Journalists on the equivalent of a “slow news day” in 1887 may have inadvertently killed the popular trend of wearing a bustle when they reported that Frances Cleveland had gone out in public without hers, causing fashionable women to eschew their own.

Madison reputedly saved a set of red velvet curtains from the Oval Room when the White House was burned to the ground in 1814, during the War of 1812, and had the curtains fashioned into a gown. Whether the legend is true or not, a replica of the gown is included the Nixon Library exhibition. It also includes a replica of a Mary Todd Lincoln gown that may have been created by Elizabeth Keckley, an African American former slave who became Lincoln’s dressmaker.

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“That’s really the whole point of this exhibition,” Byron said. “What they wore and why they wore it… Pat Nixon’s red coat is the ultimate example.”

If You Go

What: Why They Wore It: The Politics and Pop Culture of First Ladies’ Fashion

When: Through Sept. 16

Where: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda

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Information: (714) 993-5075 or nixonfoundation.org

Clothing on display

Actual and replica gowns belonging to the following first ladies will be on display in the exhibit:

  • Mary Todd Lincoln
  • Lucy Hayes
  • Frances Cleveland
  • Grace Coolidge
  • Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Mamie Eisenhower
  • Jacqueline Kennedy
  • Pat Nixon
  • Rosalynn Carter
  • Nancy Reagan
  • Barbara Bush
  • Melania Trump

Candice Baker Yacono is a contributor to Times Community News.


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