Fashion / Style File

The Real Story of America’s First Ladies

Groundbreaking Exhibit at George W. Bush Presidential Center Examines the Influence, Style and Legacy of White House Difference Makers

BY Promoted Series Correspondent // 03.01.18

Nancy Reagan is remembered for pussy-bow blouses and “Just Say No.” Laura Bush wore Oscar de la Renta gowns and advocated for education and literacy. Michelle Obama’s legacy lies in couture by designers of color, bicep-baring tops by budget-friendly retailers and “Let’s Move!”

But there’s much more to the role of First Lady of the United States of America than state dinners and nation-helping projects. Although there isn’t a formalized job description, First Ladies in the White House are expected to maintain a public profile, shaping policy while steering clear of politics. Behind the scenes, they also serve as hostess, teammate, champion and policy advocate throughout the president’s tenure.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center gives visitors insight into these overlapping roles in First Ladies: Style of Influence, on view from March 1 to October 1, 2018. The sweeping exhibition looks at the lasting impact of First Ladies past and examines how the role has evolved over time.

“This exhibit is an entertaining opportunity to discover how America’s First Ladies have changed not only style, attitudes and public opinion, but U.S. history,” says Brig. Gen. Patrick X. Mordente, director of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Rare photographs, historical documents and artifacts spanning more than 200 years of White House history will shed light on the personal stories of Martha Washington, Melania Trump and all of the First Ladies in between.

And, oh the fashion. Among the sartorial selections on view:

– A replica of a red velvet empire-style gown from the wardrobe of Dolley Madison — one that historians suspect was crafted from drapery salvaged from the White House in the midst of the War of 1812.

– Lou Hoover’s 1920s Girl Scouts uniform.

– A 1939 black velvet evening gown worn by Eleanor Roosevelt, worn while she toured the U.S. as FDR’s “eyes, ears and legs” following his partial-paralysis from polio.

– Michelle Obama’s belted, pleated, sleeveless red Michael Kors dress worn during her 2013 visit with President Obama to the U.S. Naval Academy.

That is just the tip of the fashion wonders. Barbara Bush’s blue skirt suit by Arnold Scaasi — which the champion of reading and literacy wore on the cover of her 1990 Millie’s Book — finds the spotlight again. Laura Bush’s own blue gown — a Bill Blass worn to the Ghana state dinner in 2008 — is also featured. A gray Escada pants suit that Laura Bush wore on a trip to Afghanistan in 2008 is another piece that fashionistas and budding historians will both want to see.

A Global Reach

The exhibition complements the Bush Institute’s recently published A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies. This research report, written by Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Katherine Fritz, looks at the expanding roles of 14 first ladies from the U.S. and other countries, their leadership on critical issues, the challenges they face and how they have overcome those challenges to make a difference locally, nationally and globally.

“First ladies have a unique platform to improve lives,” Gonnella-Platts says. “We hope this exhibit will underscore their significant contributions to our country, the international community, and the value of women’s leadership more broadly.”

After all, while being a First Lady is sometimes thankless and demanding, it’s always an important role. It’s about time they get a comprehensive exhibit that tells their full story.

For more information and to purchase tickets to First Ladies: Style of Influence, click here.

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