Here’s Everything You Need To Know About First Ladies’ Fashion – And The Iconic $46,000 Dress

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Being America’s First Lady isn’t an easy job. From diplomatic relations to international etiquette, it’s a position fraught with pitfalls. There are the sartorial challenges as well. While all the attention lavished on First Ladies might seem like so much empty obsession, their choices of outfits are nonetheless of the utmost importance. A particular dress can set the tone of an event – or even an entire administration. From the designer to the palette, everything counts. And one particular First Lady really pushed that boat out, wearing a frock that cost a whopping $46,000.

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From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, First Lady fashion has always been heavily scrutinized. And, as we all know, the right clothes can be the difference between success and failure. Indeed, the line separating the two can be as fine as too-short sleeves or the wrong hem on a pair of pants.

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America’s First Ladies have been walking this fine line for centuries. Even long before the arrival of television or social media, the wives of U.S. Presidents have had their sartorial choices endlessly scrutinized, every detail of their outfits pored over and judgments made. Indeed, this situation, believe it or not, goes all the way back to the country’s first-ever First Lady.

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Pre-dating even the title of First Lady, in fact, Martha Washington served for eight years from 1789. Known as Lady Washington at the time of her tenure, she hosted America’s first-ever state affairs in both Philadelphia and New York while they were serving as the country’s capital. She also held weekly get-togethers for any citizen who wanted an audience.

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As such, Washington probably wore plenty of nice frocks, at least one of which survived to become a museum piece in the town named after her husband. The superbly crafted outfit has aged particularly well, given that it’s more than 200 years old. Made of silk taffeta and hand-painted with butterflies and flowers, it’s a beautiful snapshot of impeccable 18th-century taste.

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Lady Washington, of course, lived before even photography was invented. Through commissioned portraits and face-to-face meetings, she was able to control the image she projected to the American public. More recent First Ladies, however, haven’t been quite so lucky. And one who took a fair amount of flak for her sartorial choices is Michelle Obama.

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For example, the then-First Lady came in for criticism for her choice of sleeve length, not once but twice. On election night in 2008, Obama wore a red dress under a black cardigan with three-quarter length sleeves. It seems that some in the fashion world simply don’t appreciate the value of a shorter sleeve – and they made sure we all knew it.

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The second sleeve-criticism came after Obama’s official First Lady portrait was revealed. In it, she wore a black velvet outfit, which just happened to be sleeveless, showing her incredible arms. Sections of the American press, however, professed to be shocked by this sartorial choice and deemed the lack of material from her shoulder to her wrist to be too informal.

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And then, of course, there was shorts-gate. Pictured arriving in the desert-heat of the Grand Canyon, the then-First Lady apparently committed a horrendous fashion faux pas: she wore shorts. Obama’s choice of outfit was described as inappropriate as they showed her legs. But given that she’d just gotten off a plane and she was on vacation at the time, are shorts really so bad?

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At the more successful end of the First Lady fashion scale is Mary Lincoln. Wife of Abraham Lincoln, she took on the role in 1861. And as images of her outfits prove, she was an impeccably dressed 19th-century woman. But not only did she wear beautiful period clothes, she also basically invented recycling.

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Lincoln’s silk taffeta evening bodice and full-length skirt first appeared the same year as her husband’s inauguration. The ensemble, typical of the period, featured purple flowers and black stripes woven into the fabric. A few decades later, she replaced the original garment with a more daytime-friendly version, made from parts of the skirt.

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And with that sartorial decision, recycling was born, courtesy of America’s First Lady. But perhaps the best example of First Lady trend-setting taking the world by storm is none other than the wife of the 35th President of the United States. Or, as she became more commonly known, Jackie Kennedy.

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Having become First Lady in 1961, Kennedy’s effortless chic immediately made her a style icon. Moreover, it’s a title that she holds to this day. Essentially defining the fashion of the decade with her trademark giant sunglasses and simple silhouette, women the world over wanted to emulate that signature look.

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From A-line dresses to pillbox hats and boxy coats, Kennedy’s style could be emulated for very little money. In addition, she favored bold block colors with outfits all in one shade, making her instantly recognizable. And both of these aspects are essential for a successful First Lady.

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While Kennedy’s sense of style made her an icon, another more recent First Lady took a very different tack. Still true to herself, but perhaps less interested in statement fashion, Hillary Clinton faced plenty of criticism for her fashion choices after husband Bill took office in 1993. And it had nothing to do with dark blue dresses.

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In fact, Clinton’s less successful fashion choices almost always involved a pants suit. Perfect for the businesswoman about town, they’re clearly meant to be practical and easy to wear outfits. However, they definitely aren’t in any way glamorous. And rightly or wrongly, that’s what America seems to expect from its First Ladies.

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Aside from the pants suits, there was also the time when Clinton reportedly bewildered an entire country with her sartorial choices. During a 1996 trip to Japan, the then-First Lady wore entirely black ensembles for duration of the three-day trip. The problem was that, in the East Asian nation, the color is generally associated with destruction, doom and death. So, maybe someone should have mentioned that to her before she arrived?

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Not that the criticism in any way affected Clinton’s day-to-day dress. In fact, the pants suit in an outfit that she favors to this very day. By contrast, one of the most fashion-conscious First Ladies that America has ever produced has to be Nancy Reagan. This is a woman who most definitely loved a designer frock.

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Reagan became First Lady in 1981 and set her glam stall out from the very beginning of her tenure. Holding an Inauguration Ball that year that cost $19 million, she clearly started as she meant to go on. Her eight-year run in the White House definitely encapsulated the conspicuous consumption that characterized the decade. But she was about more than glitz and glam.

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Reagan also started the much-criticized Just Say No anti-drugs campaign, consulted with her husband about policy and ran the White House in a strict, orderly way. Indeed, she was as powerful behind the scenes as she was in front of them.

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As such, over the course of Reagan’s tenure, she hosted a whopping 56 state events. That’s almost eight times as many as their successors, the Bushes. And naturally, each of the affairs called for a glamorous frock. She, however, wasn’t one to recycle her outfits, so there’s a very good chance that many of them were brand new. Moreover, it seems the dresses were in no way Kennedy-style affordable.

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Indeed, the list of designers that Reagan wore reads like a Who’s Who of 1980s fashion weeks. Oscar De La Renta, Caroline Herrera and Bill Blass all made frocks for the First Lady. But James Galanos may well have been her favorite. For example, his simple, elegant designs featured in both President Reagan’s Inaugural Balls. As the former First Lady once told W magazine, “I don’t like a lot of frills and fusses. I’ve always gone for the understated look.”

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While Reagan may not have liked frills, what she did like were sparkles – and lots of them for her designer wear. Moreover, Galanos was more than happy to oblige. For that 1981 Inaugural Ball, she wore one of his creations: a bold white one-shouldered gown covered in hand-sewn crystal beads. And she accessorized the frock with white, opera-length leather gloves.

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Those sparkles, however, were for the evening. During the day, Reagan favored Chanel-inspired skirt suits featuring elegant tailoring and fine wool fabrics. But whatever the time of day, she favored one color in particular. According to Vogue magazine, she once said, “I always liked red. It’s a picker-upper.”

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But it was another white Galanos creation that landed the then-First Lady in some hot water in 1985. Despite taking flak for the luxurious nature of the first Inaugural Ball, to mark her husband’s second term as President, she went all out on the gown for that year’s celebration. And that’s because the dress reportedly cost $46,000, which is over $100,000 in today’s money. As you can imagine, the outfit caused quite a stir.

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And no wonder. The white chiffon sheath dress was literally covered in Austrian glass beads, which meant sparkles aplenty. Art Deco-influenced, with a Bolero-style top, it reportedly required 300 hours just to affix the beads. Given that America was in recession at the time, spending $46,000 on a dress seemed a little out of touch.

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But Reagan’s expensive tastes went far beyond her love of sparkly designer gowns. Having moved into the White House in 1981, she then set about making the place her own. The then-First Lady put into motion an extensive set of renovations at the Presidential residence. And before the work started, she reportedly complained that the historic building had become “shabby.”

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According to former staffers, “cracked plaster walls, chipped paint [and] beaten-up floors” could be seen in the White House at the time. As a result, a large-scale renovation project saw walls repainted, pipes replaced and entire floors rejuvenated. There was only one problem…

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All told, the extensive renovations at America’s presidential residence cost around a million dollars, or close to three million today. The issue wasn’t so much the high cost, though. Rather, what concerned people was where the money to pay for the work had come from. Instead of using public funds to finance the repairs, Reagan raised most of the cash through private donors.

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And rather than costing taxpayers nothing at all, it seems that those private donations in fact came with a catch. Many were, in some way or another, tax deductible, which meant that public coffers actually lost money that year. Ultimately, American taxes indirectly paid for a significant part of the White House repairs. And that didn’t look great.

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Reagan’s next financial faux pas also related to the White House renovations. Given the presidential couple’s love of entertaining, the First Lady decided that it was time to replace the china dinner service. She chose a cream-colored set, with a border in, of course, red. She then ordered more than 4,300 pieces for it. If you’re wondering, that’ll serve 230 people, using 19 separate pieces per person.

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The First Lady once again used private funds to pay for the purchase of what is, by any measure, an enormous dinner service. And, as we’ve seen, that’s controversial enough in itself. But there were other problems created by the White House’s new china. One of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, was cost.

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Indeed, the 4,300-piece dinner set cost a whopping $209,508. In today’s money, that’s more than half a million dollars in china alone. And, given the country’s economic decline during the 1980s, Reagan was once again accused of being out of touch with the struggling American public. Then there was the ketchup controversy.

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Yes, in what might be among history’s worst cases of bad timing, the news of the dinner service’s cost broke just as the Reagan administration announced a controversial policy proposal. Following cuts to school meal budgets, the U.S. government actually thought about reclassifying ketchup as a vegetable for student’s lunches.

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And to make things even worse for Reagan, her love of glamorous dresses then landed her in even hotter water. Taking on the position of first couple comes along, as you might imagine, with a ton of rules. They include not making any money personally from the presidency, as well as having to declare any gifts or loans received during the term. The First Lady broke both of these regulations, however. Twice.

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Indeed, in 1982 Reagan revealed that she’d accepted gifts including jewelry and clothing worth thousands of dollars. They were, she said, items on loan or waiting to be donated to museums. Warned about the flagrant rule-breach, the First Lady announced that she wouldn’t again accept any gifts. Yet despite the controversy, she continued to do just that.

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The extent of on-loan designer outfits that Reagan hadn’t declared became public knowledge in 1988. Not only had the then-First Lady continued to receive clothes that were supposed to be returned, it appears that she also never gave them back. If they were indeed borrowed clothes, then that surely amounts to stealing. And as a result of these revelations, America’s Internal Revenue Service stepped in.

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During a three-year investigation, the IRS looked into all of the clothes, jewelry and other gifts that Reagan had accepted during her eight-year tenure. They discovered that, in total, the couple had neglected to add around $3,000,000 worth of designer goods to their tax returns. That in turn indicates that the then-First Lady didn’t return any of the gowns.

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As a result, the Reagans were slapped with a tax bill for an undisclosed sum, to pay back taxes along with accrued interest. In the end, some of the First Lady’s outfits were indeed donated to museums, including an exhibition specifically dedicated to her sense of style. And yes, the $46,000 dress was among them.

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So, while Reagan’s time as First Lady was marred by financial indiscretions and accusations of impropriety, she certainly knew how to look the part. Legendary journalist Barbara Walters later summed up Reagan’s eight-year tenure as follows: “She has served every day for eight long years the word ‘style.’”

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