When you're the first lady, everyone's watching your every move. When successful, a first lady can use her clothing to her advantage to relay a message. Other times not so much. Some past first ladies like Hillary Clinton (opens in new tab) were criticized for her fashion choices long before becoming a presidential candidate. Others like Melania Trump (opens in new tab) are currently winning the tally for how many times she can make the public question her outfits. Here, all the first lady fashion moments that have ruffled feathers over the years.
Edith Kermit Roosevelt
Most first ladies in the 19th century were very open, but Edith Roosevelt didn't like to be in the spotlight. This led people to obsess over her every move, from her children to what she would wear. One of the things she did to keep the press at bay was wear the same outfit over and over to throw off reporters (opens in new tab) and make them believe she had a larger closet than she did. The "horrible" truth wouldn't come out until years after she lived in the White House.
Abigail Smith Adams
Wearing French fashion in the 19th century was a very on-trend thing to do, but not everyone was on board. Unlike other first ladies, Abigail Adams rejected the popular French style and frowned upon other women wearing it. In a letter to her sister, she wrote about her agreement (opens in new tab)with a local preacher against the latest fashion, noting that he "thinks there are some ladies in this city, who stand in need of admonition, and I fully agree with him." Uh, rude?
Frances Folsom Cleveland
Younger than most first ladies (she took on the role at age 21), Frances Folsom Cleveland liked to wear dresses that showed off her bare neck, shoulders, and arms. According to Time (opens in new tab), the Women's Christian Temperance Union found it so concerning they issued a petition asking her to stop wearing these dresses, but that didn't stop her.
Louisa Catherine Adams
Alright, this one is more about beauty than fashion, but it still caused quite a stir. Reportedly (opens in new tab), Louisa Catherine Adams is the first first lady to wear makeup, using homemade face powder and lipstick against her husband's wishes. John Quincy Adams was so against it that when he saw the blush on her cheeks, he picked up a towel himself and washed it all away.
Mary Todd Lincoln
1861 ball gowns, but make it fashun. Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, was often criticized by the public for her ball gown purchases during the Civil War, which would cost upward of $2,000 (yes, that is a lot for the time period). Lincoln would defend her by stating (opens in new tab), "The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants." Same.
Throwback to 1809. Dolley Madison was the wife of former president James Madison, and was often criticized for showing a little more cleavage than usual for the times.
Before sustainability became a trend, Rosalynn Carter wore this blue dress with gold trim for President Jimmy Carter's 1977 Inaugural Ball. According to Time (opens in new tab), she had worn the dress publicly two times before the event, thus making this her third appearance in the outfit. This raised many eyebrows because she chose such a high-profile event to be an outfit repeater.
On the famous 1972 trip to China, Patricia Nixon wore a bright red coat, but it wasn't for nothing. (opens in new tab) Knowing international cameras were going to be on her all the time, she wore the colored coat so it'd be easier for the cameras and people back home watching to spot her. Not as "controversial" as most, but definitely a statement.
Despite her major style evolution throughout her eight years in office, Michelle Obama's first fashion statement on stage at the 2008 election gathering had the public buzzing (opens in new tab). Would this be a preview of her style in the White House? Will she *always* wear three-quarter sleeve dresses? Will she *always* smile this big?
There's always conversation about who will dress the first lady on inauguration day, but Trump didn't seem to have too many designers lining up for her last year. The first lady ended up wearing a Ralph Lauren dress, and the fashion community had a lot to say about it—specifically designers like Zac Posen who refused to dress her (opens in new tab). There had also been a lot of comparison to Jackie O's style, and how Trump would compare to the iconic first lady.
At President Trump's first State of the Union address in January 2018, Melania Trump wore a tailored white Christian Dior pantsuit (opens in new tab) and a Dolce & Gabbana blouse. Many people thought this was a nod (opens in new tab) to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic women who wore white (opens in new tab) to the presidential address in 2017 to pay homage to the suffragette movement and women's rights.
File under: iconic first lady moments. Betty Ford made waves not only when she was captured on top of the presidential cabinet table, but also as one of the first women to don a pantsuit.
Ah, the infamous pussy-bow blouse (opens in new tab) (yes, that's the real name). Melania chose to wear the $1,100 top just days after a video surfaced (opens in new tab) of her husband stating in a conversation with Billy Bush, "When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy.” One of the first of many eyebrow-raising fashion choices (opens in new tab) made by the first lady.
Michelle Obama wore shorts on a trip to the Grand Canyon with her family in 2009, and it caused a complete uproar (opens in new tab). People thought it was "inappropriate" and questioned whether it was right for her to bare her legs. Obama admits (opens in new tab) it was one of her biggest fashion regrets because it "created a huge stink."
It's safe to say this is probably the most talked-about first lady fashion moment of all time. Melania Trump wore this Zara jacket which read, "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?," when visiting separated families at the U.S. Mexico border in June 2018. Some people thought it was a terrible fashion mistake, but President Trump confirmed on Twitter (opens in new tab) that it was worn on purpose.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first first lady to be photographed in a bathing suit during her 12-year (!) tenure in the White House from 1933-1945 (four-term offices were once a thing).
For the G7 economic summit in Italy back in May 2017, the first lady thought it was fitting to wear a $51,000 Dolce & Gabbana coat (opens in new tab). Dolce & Gabbana decided to fire back at Melania Trump "haters" by designing (opens in new tab) $245 #BoycottDolceandGabbana shirts. So, uh, yeah.
While at a 2009 food bank event in Washington D.C., former first lady Michelle Obama wore a pair of $540 Lanvin sneakers that caused her to appear in a couple of headlines. When asked about the shoes (opens in new tab) later by reporters, Obama reportedly told them, “They’re shoes.”
Melania opted for a pair of Gucci sunnies while visiting Arlington National Cemetery, and Twitter was definitely not pleased (opens in new tab). The American people saw them as a sign of disrespect (from the size of the sunglasses to the actual sunglasses themselves).
Melania Trump went to visit Hurricane Harvey victims in heels and the internet lost it (opens in new tab).
Stilettos don't exactly scream, "I'm here to help." The first lady's footwear ended up distracting (opens in new tab) from the issue at-hand: the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey.
The is the first time Melania Trump wore *that* Ralph Lauren Collection shirtdress abroad (more on that later). Aside from her outfit choice, Trump was criticized for the great mood she was *clearly* in while visiting Saudi Arabia.
Oh, Nancy. Reagan secretly (opens in new tab) "borrowed" $2,000 Adolfo suits and $22,000 Galanos gowns despite warnings by White House lawyers that this had to be disclosed under the Ethics in Government Act. So, pretty much every time Reagan walked into public in a gown or a seemingly nicer outfit she was scrutinized.
Like this time she met with the Queen...
...And this time she met with Princess Diana...
...And this time again with the Queen.
The Delpozo dress that everyone loves to hate. Melania Trump has a history of wearing internationally-designed dresses despite President Trump stating in his Inaugural Address, “We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.” Even Fox News reported (opens in new tab) on the controversy...so there's that.
On her first solo trip overseas visiting Africa, Melania Trump wore a 'pith' helmet during a safari outing. The headwear has a dark colonial history in the country and was considered culturally insensitive. When asked about the hat, she addressed (opens in new tab) the matter, saying, "I want to talk about my trip and not what I wear and that's very important what I do, what we're doing with U.S. aid, and what I do with my initiatives and I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear."
Melania Trump wore a $2,950 Delpozo dress (opens in new tab) while giving a speech at the U.N. and making statements like, "No child should ever feel hungry."
Clinton apparently "baffled the Japanese (opens in new tab)" when she wore all-black ensembles for three days in a row on her trip in 1996. Black is pretty much our entire wardrobe, so we're a bit confused as to why it was such a big deal.
And then there were the heels...again. Snakeskin Manolo Blahnik stilettos—appropriate shoes to wear to the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Michelle Obama didn't wear sleeves in her 2008 White House portrait, and people lost it (opens in new tab)— calling it "too informal" and "out of season."
The first lady wore a $1,380 shirt to her first White House garden event in September. To quote one Twitter user (opens in new tab), "That's obscene."
The official White House portrait always has the public talking, but in April the American people had a lot to say about the size (opens in new tab) of the 25-carat rock on Trump's finger as well as the clearly airbrushed (opens in new tab) photo. The portrait's release was accompanied by Trump's statement, “I am honored to serve in the role of First Lady, and look forward to working on behalf of the American people over the coming years.”
The public thought it was strange the first lady chose traditional attire to visit the Pope when he's known (opens in new tab) for having more relaxed standards.
"Because she's a Republican." Barbara Bush had the public buzzing (opens in new tab) when she wore a blue velvet gown instead of, you know, any other color because it "represented" the Dems. #Scandalous
Bianca Rodriguez is the Fashion & Luxury Commerce Manager at Hearst Magazines, covering fashion, beauty, and more for Cosmopolitan, Elle, Esquire, Harper’s BAZAAR, and Town & Country. She likes lounging about with a good book and thinks a closet without platform sneakers is a travesty.
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