Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday at the age of 96, was rarely on the list of best-dressed first ladies. It was not generally described as “stylish” or “avant-garde”. She didn’t play the White House dress-up game, at least as conceived by her predecessors like Dolley Madison and Jackie Kennedy. Most of the time, she seemed to actively reject him.
But that’s not to say that Mrs. Carter didn’t fully understand the power and political use of clothing, or how to strategically deploy it during her time in Washington. In fact, it is possible to view her time as first lady as a model for an alternative approach to image-making that is still used today.
Starting with Mrs. Carter’s declaration, after Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, that the only item she would take with her to the White House from Georgia was her sewing machine. As a symbol, it was a succinct message to all who listened that this was indeed an administration in a recession that would prioritize the economy and affordability. It was also a nod to her own folk roots as the daughter of a seamstress. And that set the tone for what followed — which was the administration’s biggest clothing scandal.
It took place during the 1977 inauguration, after the Carters made history by becoming the first couple to walk rather than ride horses in the inaugural parade. (Ms. Carter’s high-collared teal fabric coat, by Dominic Rompollo, a New York designer, knee-length leather boots, and leather gloves all look particularly modern.)
Instead of wearing a new dress to the inaugural balls, Mrs. Carter wore the same caftan-like, high-necked, gold-embroidered blue chiffon dress by Mary Matise that she had purchased and worn at the Mr. Carter’s 1971 inauguration as governor of Georgia.
Shock and horror was the general reaction. Used clothes at the inauguration! Despite the fact that Ms. Carter added a new gold-trimmed cape to spruce it up a bit, also by Mr. Rompollo and purchased at Jason’s, a store in Americus, Ga., the New York Times called the dress “old.” and called Mrs. Carter “sentimentalist” for wearing the dress again. The new first lady’s support for Seventh Avenue was called into question as the fashion industry expressed its disdain, as was her ability to represent the United States with appropriate glamor on the world stage – despite the fact that glamor was never the Carters’ sell to begin with. place. Local morality was more like this.
To that end, the inauguration outfit and the values it represented set a precedent for Mrs. Carter’s time in the White House. She continued to shop in stores — another favorite store was A. Cohen & Sons, also in Americus — and she decorated the White House for Christmas with pine cones, peanuts and eggshells.
But she also continued to break sartorial rules, becoming the first first lady (yet another in her litany of firsts) to open an office in the East Wing, not to mention the first to carry a briefcase to work every morning. Briefcase!
Perhaps understanding that such an obvious sign of her more active advisory role in the administration might be as surprising to the general electorate as shopping through her wardrobe, Mrs. Carter was careful to associate this potentially controversial office accessory to more traditional shirts, often detailed with pie crust collars or other more classically feminine ruffles, often in colors like lilac and fuchsia – garments more often associated with fine housewives raised rather than to political decision-makers. Nina Hyde of the Washington Post called them “pretty and neat, comfortable and appropriate and still American-made.”
They looked modest, in every sense of the word, which was also the philosophy of the Carter administration.
The Carters were of course replaced by the Reagans, whose approach to staging the executive office was the opposite of “modest.” Ms. Carter’s righteous people-dressing style has been relegated to warning status in the political playbook. Conventional wisdom had it that Americans just didn’t want their first hostess to look that much like them after all — at least not once she (or her husband) was elected.
Yet just as history has become kinder to the Carter administration and Mr. Carter himself has become something of a model ex-president, it is also true that Mrs. Carter’s style as first lady suddenly seems surprisingly relevant. After all, current East Wing resident Jill Biden is also known for her popular character, her penchant for shirts, her lack of interest in telegraphing her fashion choices, and her penchant for appearing twice in the same thing. Or three times.
In fact, she’s celebrated for it, even though the watching world no longer says she’s wearing old clothes. They call it sustainability. And Rosalynn Carter did it – yes – first.
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