Nancy Reagan brought unabashed zeal for luxury to Washington
For better or for worse, depending on whether you were a fan, she brought with her to the White House a unabashed penchant for luxury and high fashion, epitomized by her 1981 inaugural gown by John Galanos — a sparkling, crystal-laden, one-shouldered white sheath.
That sheath is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, not far from the one-shouldered inaugural gown of another fashion-conscious first lady — Michelle Obama, notes Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator at the National Museum of American History.
“Nancy Reagan had a very clear sense of style,” says Graddy. “She enjoyed fashion, and she believed it was part of her job to promote American fashion. She knew she was looked to, to see what she was wearing and WHO she was wearing. She felt this was a very public and often formal position, and so one dressed accordingly.”
Often, that meant opulent creations from Oscar de la Renta, for example, or the California-based Galanos. She also favored Bill Blass. But it wasn’t just her own individual style that the first lady was interested in, Graddy notes. “She believed in making a certain look for the White House,” Graddy says. “She had a definite vision of how the White House and the presidency should present themselves, and (also) the United States, on an international level.”
Not surprisingly, one of the exhibit sections in “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian” that features Mrs. Reagan is entitled “Fashionable First Ladies.” Her outfit isn’t red, but many of her famous photos feature her in that hue.
“Let’s have a little respect for the woman who somehow managed to co-opt an entire color,” says actress Alison Fraser, who played the first lady in the recent off-Broadway musical “First Daughter Suite,” at the Public Theater.
In the show, by Michael-John La Chiusa, Fraser appeared lounging by a pool in a bright red swimsuit ensemble. She says that despite her reservations about the first lady in other, non-fashion areas, her research for the role made her realize that “the woman did have style. I would put her in my top three First Lady paper doll sets. When I was onstage wearing the fabulous Nancy Red bathing suit and robe designed by Toni-Leslie James, I absolutely felt like I could rule the free world.”
“In her case,” Fraser adds, “‘dress for success’ took on a whole new dimension.”
Of course, Mrs. Reagan’s taste for luxury got her into trouble as well. Along with her efforts to spruce up the White House and famously upgrade its china with funds from a private foundation, her fancy clothes earned her an unwanted nickname, “Queen Nancy.” She was stung by criticism of her expensive tastes, says Carl Anthony, historian at the National First Ladies’ Library and also a former speechwriter for the first lady.
“I think she was bewildered by it,” he says. “All those years in Sacramento (as a governor’s wife) and nobody ever critiqued her clothing. She thought she was prepared, that the transition wouldn’t be so hard. Here she goes to the nation’s capital and … her personal taste becomes an issue of debate. She was shocked by it.”
Anthony says he doesn’t think the first lady “fully grasped what it was saying to exhibit that kind of luxury when there was a homeless crisis, and joblessness.”
“She thought she was doing a good thing by improving the status of the White House,” Anthony says. “She thought people wanted the best for the White House. But she learned that even the most personal sorts of decisions carry the potential for political liability.”
The first lady also ran into trouble with her acceptance of free clothing from designers, thus violating — unwittingly, says Anthony — the new Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
Mrs. Reagan greatly helped her cause by good-naturedly spoofing her fashion-plate image with a comic song — “Second-Hand Clothes,” a spoof of “Second-Hand Rose” — at Washington’s annual Gridiron roast in 1982, earning cheers from the media folks in attendance.
“Even my new trench coat with fur collar, Ronnie bought for 10 cents on the dollar,” she sang.
“That was a turning point,” says Anthony. “But that first year and two months were rough.”