The Evolution of First Lady Fashion From 1789 to Today

A history lesson you don't want to skip.

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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.

martha washington
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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."

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mrs adams
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Abigail Smith Adams, 1800

Unlike other first ladies, Abigail Adams actually rejected French fashion, opting for high-up embroidered collars. In a letter to her sister, she wrote about her agreement 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."

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martha jefferson randolph
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Martha Jefferson Randolph, 1805

After her mother passed away when she was young, Martha Jefferson Randolph assumed the role of first lady when her father, Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1801. Though she wasn't often at the White House, she usually wore the latest Victorian fashions like a frilly hat with a purple bow.

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dolley madison
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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.

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elizabeth kortright monroe
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Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, 1820s

Before her husband became president, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe lived abroad in Paris and London for four years. Used to European fashion, she usually wore cap sleeve dresses and shawls at White House functions. Her adoption of French clothing combined with her physical beauty earned her the nickname, “La Belle Americane.”

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first lady
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Louisa Catherine Adams, 1825

Louisa Catherine Adams didn't like to follow society rules, and is said to be the first first lady to wear makeup, using homemade face powder and lipstick against her husband's wishes. She often was forced to wear dark dresses that contrasted with her pale skin, making her want to use the makeup so she wouldn't be “a fright in the midst of the splendor.”

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angelica singleton van buren
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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.

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portrait of first lady sarah childress polk
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Sarah Childress Polk, 1845

Like most women of the 19th century, Sarah Childress Polk was obsessed with Parisian fashion. She reportedly wore elegant gowns and headdresses imported from France, made from expensive material of velvet, satin, and silk, which were often decorated with imported fringe, ribbons, and lace.

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portrait of abigail powers
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Abigail Powers Fillmore, 1850

Very conscious of her appearance to others, Abigail Powers Fillmore hired someone to do her hair and design special dresses for public occasions. She was the first first lady to have items made on a sewing machine, hence why this dress pictured here is more advanced than previous first lady fashion.

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jane pierce
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Jane Pierce, Late 19th Century

On the way to her husband's inauguration, Jane Pierce got in a train accident that killed their 11-year-old son, Benjamin. Jane then spent the first two years as first lady in mourning, only wearing black dresses and accessories like the ones seen here.

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harriet lane
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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.

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mary todd lincoln
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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.

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eliza johnson
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Eliza McCardle Johnson, 1865

Eliza McCardle Johnson, like many other first ladies, didn't want much publicity. Therefore, she usually wore more conservative items like dark dresses with high collars and shawls concealing most of her hair.

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first lady julia dent grant in the white house
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Julia Dent Grant, 1876

According to the National Museum of American History, Julia Dent Grant is said to have chosen American-made clothing that were “… becoming to my person and the condition of my purse.” This usually meant rich fabrics with some jewelry made of pearls or diamonds.

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lucy webb hayes,, 1831 89, first lady of the united states 1877 81, wife of us president rutherford b hayes, seated portrait, photograph, brady handy collection, 1870s
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Lucy Webb Hayes, 1877

Sticking to the modest clothing trends of the time, Lucy Webb Hayes usually wore modest embroidered dresses in soft colors that covered her throat and arms.

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lucretia garfield, 1832 1918, wife of james a garfield, 20th president of the united states, three quarter length portrait, photograph by mathew b brady, 1870s
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Lucretia Garfield, 1881

While she may have been first lady for only a short period of time, a.k.a. around six months, Lucretia Garfield kept up with the latest fashion. She wore a lavender gown with a high collar to her husband's inaugural ball in 1881, as seen here.

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first lady francis folsom cleveland
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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.

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portrait of caroline scott harrison
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Caroline Scott Harrison, 1889

Caroline Scott Harrison's fashion choices as first lady deemed her, by The Philadelphia Times, "a sensible exemplar for American women." This was due to her modest wardrobe, featuring gowns with beaded details and floral patterns in neutral colors (almost always) made in America.

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first lady ida saxon mckinley
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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.

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first lady edith kermit carlow roosevelt, wife of president theodore roosevelt
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Edith Kermit Roosevelt, 1902

Edith Kermit Roosevelt liked her privacy and often wore the popular high-waisted dresses with trim skirts and gathered sleeves. She would often wear the same outfit over and over to throw off reporters and make them believe she had a larger closet than she did.

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portrait of first lady helen taft
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Helen Herron Taft, 1909

The "H" in "Helen Herron Taft" stands for "hats." Okay, maybe not like officially, but the former first lady was known to have a large collection back in the day. She was also the first first lady to donate her inaugural gown for public display.

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first lady ellen louise wilson on white house porch
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Ellen Louise Wilson, 1913

It's said that Ellen Louise Wilson spent less than $1,o00 a year on outfits, which is something that would seem totally unheard of today. She often wore plain or patterned high-waisted dresses.

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president and mrs woodrow wilson
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Edith Bolling Wilson, 1920

Woodrow Wilson's second wife mainly wore dark dresses, often with lace, but they were still highly fashionable. Most of her items came from the House of Worth in Paris.

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mrs warren g harding
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Florence Harding, 1922

Florence Harding often wore heavily-beaded dresses and fur pieces. This dress, pictured here, is so heavy that the dress has to be laid down sideways to avoid ruin when not on display. Crazy, I know!

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calvin coolidge and wife at white house
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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.

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first lady lou henry hoover wearing white dress
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Lou Henry Hoover, 1930

During the Great Depression, Lou Henry Hoover kept things simple. She usually wore American-made dresses, emphasizing the importance of cotton clothing to promote the cotton textile industry.

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eleanor roosevelt in new york on june 1939
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Eleanor Roosevelt, 1939

Large hats were the staple of Eleanor Roosevelt's style. They were often worn with long skirts or dresses that kept up with the conservative aesthetic she wanted to accomplish.

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harry and bess truman wave from plane ramp
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Elizabeth "Bess" Truman, 1946

Not used to being the center of attention, Elizabeth "Bess" Truman liked to wear pieces that allowed her to blend into the background and wouldn't be front-page news. This meant her wardrobe consisted of patterned shirtwaist dresses with tea-length skirts, as pictured here.

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mamie eisenhower wearing dress
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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.

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jacqueline kennedy in strapless gown
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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.

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