White House style: Glamour for the people

Since day one, American presidents and their wives have wrestled with the question: how much pomp is too much?

White house style glamour for the people

In a recent interview, fashion doyenne Donatella Versace identified Barack Obama as the inspiration for her spring 2009 men’s collection, describing his style as that of “a relaxed man who doesn’t need to flex muscles to show he has power.” Perhaps better than anyone, the Obamas have mastered the high-low aesthetic. Michelle Obama, it is well-established, looks equally at home in a Narciso Rodriguez gown and a J. Crew dress. The President shops at Burberry, but insists he wears the same suits repeatedly, even to the point of patching them up. Indeed, despite the GQ covers, Obama is not so stylish that designer Tom Ford can’t see room for improvement. “I think he’s a great-looking guy,” Ford told British Vogue, “but I think his suits don’t fit him very well.” We know that each U.S. president is a living symbol of the type of America he intends to manifest. In style terms, Barack Obama is the presidential equivalent of the frugalista. He is, in New York Times “Sunday Style” parlance, populist fabulous.

Since day one, American presidents have wrestled with the question: how much pomp is too much? “When they created the American presidency in 1789,” says Harry Rubenstein of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, “they combined the duties and functions of both a monarchy and a chief executive into one office—and this has been a problem for presidents ever since.” On the one hand, America is a democracy, created as a violent rebuke of imperialist European monarchies. On the other hand, its people want a leader they can proudly showcase on the world stage—and, let’s face it, Americans love the glitz. And so the trick for each new president has been to broadcast “for the people,” without descending into “of the people” territory.

Presidents since George Washington have struggled to attain this elusive balance. Washington, personification of the revolution, refused John Adams’s idea to refer to him, and subsequent presidents, as “Your Royal Highness Sir Protector of Our Liberties,” opting instead for the much more subtle moniker, Mr. President. On the other hand, a fan of pomp and ceremony, Washington designed the “Presidential Palace,” now the White House, to mirror the grandeur of the palaces of France’s Louis XVI and England’s George III (the plans were ultimately too grand and had to be scaled back). Even with the modifications, when Thomas Jefferson, with his more understated style, came into office in 1801, he remarked the White House was “big enough for two emperors, one pope, and the grand lama.”

The idea of a glamorous first lady didn’t come about until Dolly Madison, wife of president James Madison (1809-1817), who was not only stylish—with an affinity for French culture—but also a hostess extraordinaire, and the first first lady to host her husband’s inaugural ball. “Mrs. Madison was like Mrs. Kennedy in her day,” says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “Not just her clothing, but she knew how to entertain graciously, how to decorate. She really understood that the White House was a symbol of what America could be.”

After Madison, the idea of the first lady as an important part of presidential myth-making took hold. Others openly embraced high style. “Mrs. Lincoln was famous for her love of finery. She was considered the ultimate clothes horse of all the first ladies,” says Mears. “But I don’t think the concept of glamour and the White House really came into being until Jacqueline Kennedy.”

In 1961, it was still the early days of the TV era when John and Jackie Kennedy entered the White House. They were the youngest and most attractive first couple the office had ever seen. The three preceding first ladies—Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt—while beloved, had been rather dowdy, says Mears. Then Mrs. Kennedy waltzed in with her sculptural hair, pillbox hat, couture gowns, multilingualism and European refinement. “You can see why people just went, ‘Oh my God!’ ” says Mears. “It makes a stronger, unified picture when both husband and wife are equally glamorous. When there’s an affinity, a physical affinity for one another, they reflect each other’s good physical attributes, [and] it gives an even more positive message.”

What a lot of people may not realize, she points out, is that Jackie Kennedy, like her husband, was extremely media savvy. “They both understood, as the Obamas do, that technology was going to have a great deal of influence,” she says. “How you looked on television, then becoming the ultimate medium by which Americans were getting their news, was extremely important.”

But despite the Camelot myth—perpetuated both inside and outside the office—the White House was still a populist platform. The fact that the public could now scrutinize the president’s choices in unprecedented detail meant that the Kennedys learned to play down their wealth. He swapped his Saville Row suits for tailored American ones. She ordered her French couture—Givenchy, Chanel, Balenciaga—through American retailers so she could say it was acquired locally. Many of her most famous looks were attributed to the French-born American designer Oleg Cassini. “But there’s still a great deal of controversy today whether or not Oleg Cassini really designed her clothes,” says Mears.

White House glamour dipped with the Ford and the Nixon eras, and hit what is considered a historic low during the administration of Jimmy Carter, who came to the White House at the height of the recession of the ’70s. The Carters wanted to eliminate waste (early on, he sold off the presidential yacht, the Sequoia, as a cost-cutting move). Carter wore a US$175 business suit to his swearing-in ceremony. His wife, Rosalind, wore the same plain, off-the-rack dress she’d worn to her husband’s gubernatorial inauguration, and people were appalled. Instead of riding in a limousine, they walked along the parade route and shook hands with people. “He didn’t have inaugural balls,” says Rubenstein. “If you look at his invitations, he invites people to inaugural ‘parties.’ There were questions that he took it too far in the other direction.” His approach may have fit the times, but it depressed people to look at.

With the arrival of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1981, a new high-water mark for White House glam was set. A good-looking couple with Hollywood connections and a taste for the finer things, they spent a whopping US$16.3 million on inaugural festivities. Frank Sinatra performed, and Nancy Reagan wore a US$10,000 hand-beaded gown by Galanos, an American couturier. As was to be expected, there were critics, notably Barry Goldwater, who said, “When you’ve got to pay $2,000 for a limousine, $7 to park and $2.50 to check your coat at a time when most Americans can’t hack it, that’s ostentatious.”

In 1993, when Bill Clinton came into office—after George and Barbara Bush, a gutsy, traditional family from the Second World War era—he brought in a whole new sort of glamour. For one thing, he broke the record for the number of official balls held: 14 of them, at a cost of US$33 million, and he partied at them all. “Clinton had this way of presenting himself as America’s first rock ’n’ roll president,” says John Orman, chair of the department of politics at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and author of several books on the American presidency. “When Clinton was sworn in, it was sort of like a People magazine reunion. He let the celebrities use the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House. Tom Hanks would go there.” He would do things like appear on The Phil Donahue Show, play saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, and visit MTV. “They asked him, do you wear boxers or briefs?” says Orman. “Normally presidents don’t get asked questions like that. He was participating in new media.”

There was a national fascination with Bill and Hillary Clinton—specifically, their oddity as a couple. “He comes across as the sexier-looking figure and seems to be more at ease with himself in terms of appearance and dress,” says Mears. “I think Mrs. Clinton has struggled a bit with that.” In the early days of his presidency, Hillary dressed plainly, with minimal makeup. For her clothes, she relied on an Arkansas-based designer, and was roundly lambasted. By the time Clinton was sworn in for a second term in 1997, she had learned the importance of appearance—and raised the ante with new hair, new makeup and an Oscar de la Renta gown (not that this has quieted her critics).

Laura Bush underwent a parallel style evolution during her White House stay. When her husband was sworn in in 2001, she opted for a Dallas designer named Michael Faircloth, best known for dressing Texan matrons and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. By 2005, Bush’s second swearing-in, she too had switched to Oscar de la Renta. In fact, she wore a different gown to each of nine inaugural balls that year. The total cost of the festivities was US$42.3 million, the most expensive inaugural celebration in history to that point.

The glamour of the Obama family is not that of the dynastic Kennedys, even though both are young, effortlessly stylish and athletic (see his buff vacation photos). Nor is it that of the Reagans, with their Hollywood pedigree, even though there is no denying the Obamas’ star power. The Obamas are adored by celebrities—from Oprah to Will.I.Am to Scarlett Johansson—but unlike Bill Clinton, who seemed to love nothing more than a celebrity photo op, they keep stars at arm’s length so as not to appear frivolous or pandering.

They always look impeccable, and yet it doesn’t feel like they’re products of teams of stylists. “Mrs. Obama is fascinating because it’s very unusual to see an American go this far in terms of experimenting with young designers,” says Mears. “Some of the risks she’s taken I think have not been as well received, but the fact that she’s wearing Narciso Rodriguez, Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo—people even mainstream fashion press don’t really wear—I think that’s innate.”

Perhaps most remarkable, observers say, is how Barack Obama glamorized the office of the president-elect, “an office that technically does not exist,” says Orman. “After he won the election, he held a press conference in Chicago, put a seal up and the seal said, the ‘President-Elect of the United States.’ Then all of the reporters started calling him ‘Mr. President-Elect’ and he held press conferences. I mean we’ve had people with small transition teams before. But we’ve never had someone walking around saying, I represent the office of the president-elect. So he got people to buy into that and he really elevated it.” In a sense, he has already accomplished what perhaps no president in history has managed to do: instill the presidential office with glamour and sex appeal, despite—and even because of—his sheen of modesty.