Fashion is a powerful tool, especially for someone in the public eye as much as the first lady. For decades, these women have used garments like lace dresses, low-cut tops, or the famous pantsuit (hi, Hillary!) to communicate with the American people. When successful, a first lady can use her clothing to her advantage to relay a message, other times not so much. Take a trip down memory lane with 40 leading ladies and the fashion that made a statement during their time in the White House.
With her Eurocentric fashions, Jackie Kennedy signaled her plans to infuse the White House with high culture. And when Michelle Obama wore J.Crew gloves, she communicated that she was a first lady for the people.
Enjoy this fun look back at some standout First Ladies throughout history…
Martha Dandrige Custis Washington,1789
As one of the richest women of the late 18th century, Martha Washington had more than enough room to experiment with fashion. She was able to choose between the finest fabrics for her gown, cloak, headpiece, and gloves, as seen here. Her most notable piece of fashion, royal purple silk wedding shoes from her wedding to George, is considered “the Manolo Blahniks of her time.”
Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 1810s
As a former Quaker, Dolley Madison was used to wearing more modest clothing, but that changed when she left the faith. She then started wearing low-cut dresses made famous during the Napoleonic Era that were rich in color, with fabrics that made her “look like a Queen” to spectators.
Angelica Singleton Van Buren, 1840
Helping her widowed uncle, President Martin Van Buren, Angelica Singleton Van Buren became the first lady at 21 years old. Keeping up with the trends of the time, she liked to wear her hair in tight ringlets, often using feathers as hair accessories with off-the-shoulder gowns.
Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston, 1860
The niece of James Buchanan is considered to be the Jackie Kennedy of her time. Most notably, she made national headlines for her “very” low-cut European-style dress that she wore to her uncle’s inauguration. The dress, pictured here, was a hit among women, and bodices dropped an inch or two almost instantly.
Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861
Like we said in the previous slide, Lane Johnston’s dress was a hit. The next first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, loved the dress style so much she wore something similar to her husband’s inauguration. As you can see, she liked her items lavish and is said to have gone $20,000 over the Congressional budget due to her spending habits.
Frances Folsom Cleveland, 1886
Frances Folsom Cleveland was a rule-breaker and caused many controversies when she continually donned dresses that showed off her bare neck, shoulders, and arms. (I mean how gorgeous is this dress though?!) According to Time, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union got so fed up that they issued a petition asking her to stop wearing these dresses. She ignored them.
Ida Saxton McKinley, 1900
During a trip to Belgium, Ida Saxton McKinley was so shocked by what the workers went through to make the lace she bought, so she did as much as she could to help support them. According to the National First Ladies’ Library, this meant a majority of her custom-made dresses featured a significant amount of lace. This inspired many other women to try to replicate the same look.
Grace Goodhue Coolidge, 1927
Compared to her partner, Grace Goodhue Coolidge liked to make a statement and vocalized that through her clothing. She often wore sleek shift dresses in bright colors with outlandish hats. According to the National Museum of American History, her husband would surprise her and pick out her outfits.
Mamie Doud Eisenhower, 1953
Mamie Doud Eisenhower wore this bubblegum pink shade so much during her time as first lady. It eventually became known as “Mamie pink” and was donned by most women in the ’50s and early ’60s.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1963
During her time as first lady and for years after, Jackie O. designed most of her clothes. She’s probably the most memorable fashionable first lady in history, and it’s easy to see why.
Patricia Nixon, 1969
Patricia Nixon was considered a fashion trailblazer even before her husband was sworn in as president. At her husband’s 1969 inauguration, she wore a fur hat, rather than a cloth one, and a bright pink coat trimmed in fur.
Betty Ford, 1976
While she may have only been the first lady for little over two years, the former Martha Graham dancer and department store model was known for her colorful scarves and high-neck collars seen here.
Nancy Davis Reagan, 1985
The former film actress knew how to dress, but most importantly: accessorize. I mean, the gold chain belt? Come on! Nancy Reagan reportedly wore this crimson red color so much that it eventually became known as “Reagan red” among the press.
Barbara Bush, 1991
Even off-duty, Barbara Bush was never seen without her iconic red lipstick or a shade a blue. She always strived to wear red, white, and blue during her time as a former first lady. This outfit definitely checks all of those boxes.
Hillary Clinton, 1997
Here at Marie Claire, we know how influential Hillary is when it comes to first lady fashion. I mean, the pantsuit was practically invented by her, but for history’s sake, we’re highlighting this iconic gem: a deep blue turtleneck with a matching plaid jacket.
Michelle Obama, 2013
Most first ladies before Michelle Obama would never have dared to wear a halter dress, which is why this ruby-red chiffon and velvet halter-neck gown by Jason Wu that she wore to Barack Obama’s second inaugural ball is next-level iconic.
Melania Trump, 2018
The former model has chosen some interesting fashion choices over the past four years, but this creamy outfit that she wore to the Giza Pyramids in Egypt is the most surprising. From the straw brimmed hat to the men’s tie, it shows how far first lady fashion has truly come.
Adapted from MarieClaire.com