Michelle Obama is both lauded and disparaged for her fashion choices, especially her recent decision to wear (gasp) shorts while riding Air Force One. But she’s hardly the first to choose outfits a little outside of the norm for a First Lady. Here are 9 FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) before her who shocked the nation with their fashion decisions?
1. Frances Cleveland was much younger than her Presidential husband – 27 years younger, to be exact. So, it makes sense that her fashions were a bit more youthful than a lot of her female White House peers: she wore gowns that showed a lot of skin for the times and loved to show off her bare neck, shoulders and arms. The nation loved Frances and scads of young women copied her scandalously bare look, much to the chagrin of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They drew up a petition and had copies sent to various branches, then circulated the petitions across the country in an attempt to get Mrs. Cleveland to please think about her position as a role model for young ladies. Their pleas went ignored.
2. Frances was hardly the first to expose the nation to a wicked amount of décolletage, though. That trend goes all the way back to Mary Todd Lincoln (pictured). Abe’s wife absolutely adored shopping and racked up a huge debt on clothes, lots of them showing off her ample assets. Lincoln didn’t appreciate this. “Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail were nearer the head, it would be in better style,” he once said. She also liked to wear flowers on her head, but not a subtle bloom tucked behind the ear – she wore such copious amounts that at least on one occasion, a senator remarked to his wife that Mrs. Lincoln saw it fit to festoon her head with a flower pot.
3. We can keep going back to First Ladies who were fond of exposing a little bosom – or in the case of Dolley Madison, a lot. Dolley used to be a Quaker, so the expanse of bare skin that she liked to show was especially scandalous for her. First Lady Abigail Adams once wrote in a letter that Dolley unabashedly resembled “a nursing mother.” There’s a story that Dolley ran across an old friend who had also been a Quaker, but left the faith. Nevertheless, she was surprised to see him without the traditional black hat that Quakers once wore, and remarked with, “Brother, where is thy broadbrim?” The friend is reported to have looked rather pointedly at her cleavage before responding, “Sister, where is thy kerchief?”
4. Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson all wore pants on informal occasions such as horse riding, but it wasn’t until 1972 and Pat Nixon that a First Lady actually appeared in a formal magazine picture proudly donning what was formerly thought of as strictly menswear.
5. Long before Obama outraged PETA with his fly-swatting, Ida McKinley upset the Audubon Society with a certain accessory she was fond of. It was an ornamental display of feathers called an aigrette, and she wasn’t the only one who loved it – American ladies so took to the style that the bird the feathers came from, the egret, became endangered. The Audubon Society issued a formal protest against Ida.
6. Eleanor Roosevelt was always on the go and wasn’t much concerned about her appearance or being a fashion plate. It wasn’t abnormal for her to show up somewhere with a net around her hair or a white scarf tied around it, which some reporters said looked like a rag.
7. When Rosalynn Carter reused a gown for her husband’s Presidential Inauguration in 1977, people immediately began talking. How dare she wear an old gown for such a formal occasion – how disrespectful of the Presidency! But she was really just being practical and didn’t like spending the money for a one-time-use dress. That’s Rosalynn, Amy, and the gown in the picture to the left.
8. Mamie Eisenhower loved clothes, and she loved pink. Barbie would have felt perfectly at home in the White House during Ike’s two terms, because Mamie decked the place out with pink candles and pink tablecloths and even served pink desserts at formal functions when she could get away with it. With tongues firmly in cheeks, the press dubbed the White House “The Pink Palace” for eight years, until the Kennedys came along to undo all of Mamie’s Pepto décor.
9. As a lady of the Victorian Era, it would have been strange if Julia Grant had worn anything but the elaborately decorated dresses and gowns of the era. But she preferred her outfits so dripping with beads, embroidery, lace and ribbons that she was once described as looking like a couch.
And of course there's this, which seems hideous to me today, but I must remember the photo was taken during the era of Blossom and funky headwear:
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