The Fashion of “The First Lady”
Showtime’s series The First Lady centers on three women who lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in the years spanning 1933 to 2020. It stars three Golden Globe winners: Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama.
Directed by Danish director Susanne Bier, this 10-episode show spotlights the personal and political lives of three presidential spouses leading up to and through their residency in the White House. It is a detailed reconstruction spanning almost 100 years. We see all three characters as younger girls, before they met their husbands, and during their FLOTUS years.
Created by Danish costume designer Signe Sejlund, who’s been collaborating with Bier for the last 30 years – including the Golden Globes nominated TV series The Night Manager and The Undoing – the exquisite fashion choices seen in the series are a common denominator. They vividly capture particular periods in time, the points of view expressed by the main characters, and underline how drastically the First Lady’s fashion and role in the White House have changed over the decades.
Eleonore Roosevelt, portrayed by Gillian Anderson, is known as the longest-serving First Lady. She was a White House resident from 1933 to 1945 and had four inauguration ball gowns.
At the beginning of the 20th century, womenswear was still influenced by the Gilded Age standards of power and opulence. Yet, many women were beginning to work outside the home, and this entailed the “tailor-made” fashion of suit dresses. We see Eleonor Roosevelt wearing them a lot at a younger age, as she does in her First Lady years (though the skirt length changes following fashion trends and falls between the mid-calf and just above the ankle).
In the 1930s, American style trends became profoundly influenced by Hollywood. Women’s apparel was based on fashions worn on screen by Jean Harlow, Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo. As a reaction, a return to conservatism didn’t wait long. Often opting for elegant yet demure dresses for special occasions, Eleonore Roosevelt let her precious accessories do the talking. She had a watch, a brooch, and a pendant, which she began wearing when still very young. She gave them all to her daughter later on, not just as sign of perpetual wealth and inheritance typical of certain circles but, also, as a gesture of warm reconciliation.
While evening wear became dominated by the body-skimming silhouette, daywear tended to romanticism with femininity coming in a variety of patterns: floral, plaid, dots, and more abstract prints. Smart suits were popular with crisp lines and sculptural shoulders.
In the early 1940s, casual styles became a must. Mrs. Roosevelt’s wardrobe went along with this trend without losing its sophistication.
In spite of her hectic schedule and a deep sense of duty towards the nation – the need to hold regular press conferences, writing columns for newspapers and magazines, and hosting her radio show – nothing overshadowed her style. She would sometimes attend events in glamorous gowns and lavish furs, which made a noted difference from her everyday dresses and separates.
Elizabeth Anne “Betty” Ford, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, became First Lady in 1973, when her husband, Gerald Ford, was sworn in as president following Richard Nixon’s resignation. She remained FLOTUS throughout 1977 and was known as a vivacious activist for women’s rights, being a passionate supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also raised awareness on health issues such as breast cancer as well as alcoholism and substance abuse. What many don’t know is that she was also a talented dancer. She studied modern dance at Bennington College, in Vermont, and decided to turn her vocation into a career. Later, she became a member of Martha Graham’s dance group in New York City, supporting herself as a fashion model before marrying Gerald Ford.
Fashion-wise, Betty Ford was known for her love of beautiful gowns as well as tailoring. Most of her wardrobe for the series was made from scratch, including replicas of her various shirt dresses, the powder blue dress she posed in for her official portrait, and the famous yellow robe she wore after her mastectomy.
She often chose wrap dresses, cat-eye sunglasses, silk scarves, and gold jewelry – basically, everything that was chic in the 1970s.
She was a fan of belts to nip the waist, emphasizing her hourglass figure. She adored coats.
Betty Ford is known for an image that captures her on her last day in the White House. We see her dancing with her shoes off atop of a table and wearing a pantsuit – a rare sight for a First Lady.
Michele LaVaughn Robinson Obama, portrayed by Viola Davis, is a lawyer and a writer. She is also the wife of the 44th President, Barack Obama. She was the First Lady from 2009 to 2017. Through her main initiatives, she became a role model for women. Speaking about her fashion accomplishments, let’s just say that Mrs. Obama is one of the most photographed women of her time and is often compared to Jacqueline Kennedy – another First Lady who reached style icon status in part because she was well aware that fashion could and should be used as a diplomatic statement.
Never afraid to wear bold silhouettes or colors, Michelle Obama is famous for her casual-chic style. She frequently supports upcoming designers: Jason Wu’s sartorial blastoff, a one-shoulder design she wore for her husband’s inauguration, serves as one example. For the TV series, Jason Wu recreated Michelle Obama’s iconic white gown she picked for the first inauguration ball.
During her FLOTUS days, Michele Obama used to wear a lot of coats, suits, and belted dresses, choosing bright colors and non-trivial patterns.
The stunning fashion designs shown in the series come together to build a truly historic document in terms of recreating some unique outfits and iconic looks by all three presidential spouses, wedding gowns included.
Sejlund’s team managed to create a complete copy of Eleonor Roosevelt’s wedding gown she wore in 1905. The hallmark of that period was an emphasis on modesty. Dresses covered the body from neck to the floor. Arms were kept hidden by long sleeves. Eleonore Roosevelt wore a white satin princess robe draped with old point lace. The veil featured orange blossoms and a diamond crescent.
Back in 1992, Michelle Obama opted for a traditional all-white off-the-shoulder gown with a statement Bardot neckline, long sleeves, and a fitted waist. Her bridal look was finished off with a long veil and oversized drop-pearl earrings.
For Betty Ford, her nuptials with Gerald Ford in 1948 marked her second marriage. Instead of an all-white gown, she chose a sapphire blue satin dress and a matching hat with a piece of lace from a parasol belonging to the groom’s grandmother. Viewing the series is an education in the evolution of fashion from 1933 to 2020.