Mary Todd Lincoln had the misfortune of being an ambitious woman at a time when she was expected to be mere adornment – and that made her miserable. The story recalls that the first lady was brooding, possibly due to an undiagnosed and highly speculated mental illness (the way she was criticized by the press certainly didn’t help). So this unhappy woman who lived over 150 years ago did what a lot of modern women do when they’re sad: she shopped.
“Frustrated with her own goals, married to a man who was able to take her to where she wanted to go – the ultimate seat of power – but still unhappy, Mrs. Lincoln put a lot of energy into buying jewelry and having dresses. done, ”Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, told The Daily Beast. “She would go to her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, and order 15 dresses at a time. It would take Keckley months to make them all.
One of these pieces, a rose pink capelet with black lace details at the neck, is part of “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” a new exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The show is the museum’s very first attempt to center the stories of presidents’ wives. It opened in DC and online this week, and explores the lives of everyone from Martha Washington to Melania Trump to portraiture, as well as some clothing.
The pieces were drawn from a variety of sources – the National First Ladies Library, Presidential Libraries, Private Collections and the White House, which loaned 12 “unprecedented” portraits to the exhibition. Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said the museum “literally couldn’t have done it without them”. Most of the portraits on display are typically kept in private White House meeting rooms.
The Office of the White House Curator helped facilitate this process. Shaw, the senior historian, called the office responsible for the conservation of the fine arts used to decorate the residence as an “autonomous” team that does not necessarily change staff from administration to administration. (Current curator Lydia Tederick was appointed by Trump but has worked in the office since 1979.)
The White House Historical Association, itself founded by Jackie Kennedy during her time as First Lady, has also helped reframe and clean up works of art. A portrait of Melania Trump hangs in the exhibit; it was provided by its staff.
“They printed and framed it to Ms. Trump’s liking, and sent it to us to hang,” Shaw said.
19th-century clothing, like Lincoln’s capelet, can be difficult to authenticate, Shaw said. She found the piece while visiting the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio. The curator told Shaw she had a Keckley original. “I was like, ‘Really?!? Shaw remembers. “I wanted something that really tells a story.”
And this cape certainly does. It was manufactured by Keckley, who became the Lincoln official milliner, or seamstress, by sheer will, plus a lot of financial sense. Born in Virginia, the daughter of a slave mother and the white planter who owned her, Keckley survived a brutal upbringing of abuse and rape. She eventually belonged to her half-sister, Anne Garland, and her husband.
“In many ways, Keckley’s story reflects many other experiences of enslaved people who literally worked around the clock to save money to buy their freedom,” Shaw said. “She bought her freedom from her own half-sister, which is heartbreaking.
In 1855, Keckley paid $ 1,200 to extricate herself and her son from slavery, then moved to Washington, DC, to become a dressmaker. She always had a knack for tailoring and was quickly a benchmark for many fashionable wives of powerful men, including the wives of future Confederate leaders, Sen. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
She met Lincoln at her husband’s inauguration; the two became quick confidants. “Lincoln poured his heart out into Keckley and they found an affinity, a kind of friendship,” Shaw said. “I don’t think we should underestimate the power dynamics that were still present in the relationship. These women were not equal, but they were able to have a strong relationship.
The two understood each other, Shaw added. Keckley modernized Lincoln’s wardrobe, dressing it up elegantly, putting it in vertical stripes to make it look taller and slimmer. The morning after President Lincoln was assassinated, his grieving wife asked Keckley to come to his quarters.
This is the relationship between the first ladies and their creators of images. “When you stand in your underwear with someone who talks about how you want to look around the world when you put on your clothes, you can develop a very close relationship,” Shaw said.
This was the case with Nancy Reagan, a physically tiny woman who manifested ’80s excess in her glamorous and unabashedly golden wardrobe, often courtesy of designer James Galanos. She rarely wore the same dress twice, sadly accepted thousands of dollars in free designer gifts, and spent $ 10,000 on her 1981 inaugural dress designed by Galanos.
Four years later, she would wear another Galanos original to celebrate her husband’s re-election. With its broad, padded shoulders and A-line cut, the dress hugs her size 2 frame perfectly. It would have taken 300 hours to embroider the chiffon with glass beads, and the dress is included in the exhibit.
“Everything suited her exactly the way she wanted. This dress weighs about 20 pounds, and Nancy was just a tiny little woman. She was walking around in that shimmering armor costume.“
– Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
The son of Greek immigrants who lived in Los Angeles but who has always been compared to French couture designers obsessed with detail, Galanos also became a close friend of Reagan. Shaw spoke to Nancy’s son Ronald Reagan, Jr, who said his mother simply called the designer “Jimmy”.
“He knew his body down to the millimeter,” Shaw said. “And everything fit her just the way she wanted it to.” This dress weighs about 20 pounds, and Nancy was just a tiny little woman. She was walking around in that shimmering armor costume. It was the rare outfit she repeated, wearing it again when Princess Diana visited the White House in 1985 and iconically danced with John Travolta.
Jackie Kennedy, so in love with her favorite French fashion houses – in particular, Chanel and Givenchy – was unwilling to give up her dedication once she became first lady and was encouraged to shop for American-made clothes. While promoting many American designers, including Oleg Cassini, whose name has become synonymous with Camelot, Kennedy also asked Manhattan house Chez Ninon to make copies of the freshest looks in Paris.
“Chanel and Givenchy would approve the pattern, fabric, buttons and send the materials from Paris to Manhattan, so Chez Ninon could make their clothes,” Shaw said. “She knew the importance of having American clothes, but she wouldn’t compromise on anything else and wanted her clothes to match this French vision.
For example, a gray wool tweed suit was included in the exhibit, on loan from the Kennedy Library in Boston. “It’s very conservative, but very stylish, minimalist, and really timeless – you can see someone wearing it right now,” Shaw said, speaking of Jackie’s timeless allure. “It doesn’t look like she’s 65, and with that, I wanted to evoke that aesthetic she’s become so famous for.
Chez Ninon probably also made the pink copy of “Chanel” that Jackie was wearing in Dallas when her husband was shot, the one stained in blood and currently out of sight at the National Archives. The exact replica of Chanel’s 1960 fall / winter clothing cost $ 1,000, far less than the original $ 10,000.
“It is an accessible material, and the folk quilting tradition of African American women was important to her. She wanted to have a conversation about the power of the needle in the lives of women.“
– Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
The Milly dress that Michelle Obama wore in her official White House Portrayal by Amy Sherald can also be seen in the exhibit, posed right in front of her portrait. The cotton poplin dress is from the spring 2017 collection by designer Michelle Smith; its geometric print was inspired by Gee’s Bend, a small black community in Alabama where women have quilted since the early 1900s.
Shaw visited Michelle Smith in New York City in preparation for the exhibit last year; they talked about the symbolism and meaning of Obama’s portrait robe. “[Michelle Smith] really wanted to work with cotton as a fabric that everyone has in their closets somewhere, ”Shaw said. “It’s an accessible material, and the folk quilting tradition of African American women was important to her. She wanted to have a conversation about the power of the needle in the lives of women.
Michelle Obama “got it,” Shaw explained. “She must have viewed these models as representing the work of American women and the visual and aesthetic contribution women have made. It was something she wanted to honor.
Although the original runway gown had an open back to the waist, Michelle Obama “wanted something a little more modest,” so she was lifted in a halter neckline for her portrait.
The shapes worn by the clothes are also part of the exhibition. Each is made to the unique measure of the first lady, bringing a sense of their humanity to the room.
“So many actresses have this physical type of cookie cutter,” Shaw said. “The first ladies don’t. They were all different ages, from 21 in the early seventies when they were in the White House. All kinds of body types. These dresses bring the presence of the first lady into the galleries in a way that the portraits only suggest. I think it’s a great reality check for people to see this.
“Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” is on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and online.
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