Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions

From the first days on a campaign trail to the final days living in the White House, the First Ladies of the United States have attracted attention in numerous ways. Both historic and modern First Ladies have harnessed the power of fashion to build identity and inform Americans. In conjunction with our exhibition “Making Their Mark,” we present a distinguished panel to discuss and examine the fashions of America’s First Ladies through conversation and photos. Moderated by Tim Gunn, star of Project Runway, panelists include Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology; Lisa Kathleen Graddy, Deputy Chair and Chief Curator of Political History and the First Ladies Collection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History; and Tracy Reese, a fashion designer who has designed for First Lady Michelle Obama. Presented in partnership with the White House Historical Association.

Tuesday, September 30, at 7 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater

The discussion will be streamed live on YouTube.

…..The exhibition was also the setting for the Metropolitan’s “Party of the Year”, on the night of December 9, where guests of honor were Galliano and Diana, former princess of Wales, who wore Galliano’s inaugural design for Dior. Tickets for the dinner party cost $1,ooo per person; those who came for just the drinks and dancing paid $140 each. In the crush to enter the dance party, one woman stepped on the hem of another woman’s dress and tore it. “You bitch, you’re ruined my $7,000 dress!”, screamed the victim, who punched the other woman in the face. Their escorts stood awkwardly aside, while the two women fought on the entrance stairs.
—  Exhibition Review: Christian Dior, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Valerie Steele. Fashion Theory, volume 1 issue 2.

Video stills from the installation Emotions, by Bob Verhelst. Fashion actors reveal themselves. 

Emotions are frequently the source from which numerous designers and artists draw inspiration for their creations. They are the consequence of notable events, experiences and confrontations which we all have. On this basis, one hundred authoritative people in the international fashion, art and design worlds were asked what their most intense emotion is in the field of fashion or clothing. These short personal accounts, recorded on video, demonstrate by their number, originality and spontaneity that fashion and the choice of clothing have a special role to play for all of us. It is inseparably linked to who we are.

These video statements, several of which have been interpreted in the form of separate shorts by film-makers, can be seen on the top floor of the Police Tower in Oudaan. The original gym will now function as a lounge where the visitor is deluged with an assortment of beautiful, bizarre and telling fashion emotions. In addition, they will also have the opportunity to enjoy a panoramic view of the city with its added coloured surfaces.

Were interviewed amongst others:
Willy Vanderperre (photographer), Benoit Méleard (shoe-designer), Stephen Jones (hat-designer), Olivier Theyskens (fashion-designer), Valerie Steele (curator – Fashion Institute of Technology N.Y.C), Terry Jones (editor I-D Magazine), An Vandevorst (fashion-designer), Dries Van Noten (fashion-designer), Bernard Willhelm (fashion-designer), Stephan Schneider (fashion-designer), Wim Delvoye (artist), Bob van Reeth (architect), Sonia Rykiel (fashion-designer), Andrea Fereol (actrice), Paul Smith (fashion-designer), Veronique Nichanian (director “Mode Macsulin” Hermes), Luc Tuymans (artist), Peter Thomas MC Gough (artist), Miguel Barcelo (artist), Lieve Van Gorp (fashion-designer), Titus Dutoya (artist), Sangare Genevieve (model), Vincent Lappartient (student Art History), Wim Neels (fashion-designer), Angelo Figus (fashion-designer), Anne Kurris (art director), Kristien Hemmerechts (author), Ronald Stoops (photographer), An Pierlé (musician), Mitridate Kheradand (unemployed), June (stylist), Avice Philippe (merchandising director), Kirsten Pieters (model), Jurgen Shabes (stylist), Thomas Hirschhorn (artist), Inge Grongard (make-up artist), Vivienne Westwood (fashion-designer), Azzedine Alaïa (fashion-designer), Carpara Olivera (fashion-designer), J.C. De Castelbajac (fashion-designer), Cel Crabeels (artist), Anna Heylen (fashion-designer), Marko Prodeka (student), Sam Geres (model), Dana International (singer), Yoshiko Shiojiri (stylist), Jerôme de Noirmont (gallery owner), Aarich Jespers (Zita Swoon), Hannes Wieder (student), Patricia Canino (photographer) and many others.

Feminist historians have argued that the corset was deeply implicated in the nineteenth-century construction of a “submissive”, “masochistic” feminine ideal. Indeed, the corset has been described as a “quintessentially Victorian” garment, because of its role in creating and policing middle-class femininity. Although plausible, this thesis is ultimately unconvincing. Men were not responsible for forcing women to wear corsets. On the contrary, a number of powerful male authority figures, including many doctors, opposed corsetry. So did a vocal minority of dress reformers of both sexes, who wondered why the majority of women persisted in wearing corsets. …

The triumph of corsetry occurred not because Victorian women were more oppressed or masochistic than their predecessors, but because the Industrial Revolution and the democratization of fashion gave more women access to corsets. … The history of the corset from the end of the French Revolution to the First World War is not only about “fashioning the bourgeoisie”, since corsetry, like fashion in general, was rapidly becoming a mass phenomenon.

—  Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, p.35

Tight Lacing, 1777. 

The lady’s maid has wound her mistress’s stay-laces around a poker and is pulling with all her might, one foot braced against her skirt, which has been extended by a “cork rump.”

Was it necessary for a woman to hold onto something while being laced up? In the eighteenth century, yes, it would have been helpful: the corset lace “was put in starting at the bottom, and was zigzagged through the staggered holes to the top where it was tied off”, explain Peter and Ann Mactaggart, who are authorities on the subject. “When such stays were tightened the wearer was liable to be pulled off balance if she did not hold on to something. This arose partly because she was at the other end of a ‘tug of war’ and partly because when one short section was pulled up after another, the pull was likely to have been first from one side and then from the other.” By the nineteenth century, corsets were constructed differently: there were more holes, “the holes were placed opposite to one another, [and] the lace was put in so as to form a series of crossings,” with the result that the corset could be “tightened without any oscilation in the pull… because the pull could be applied to both sides of the opening at the same time.” By the nineteenth century, there was “no reason, except perhaps tradition, for her to hold onto anything." 

Extract from The Corset, A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele (pages 22-24).


Some individuals act so damaged. So broken and aloof. For fear of what? The individual who has truly lost everything loves with all of their heart and has no fear of it breaking. These souls fear nothing. They have already been run through the deepest tunnels of sorrow. They have seen the darkest side of the moon. You cannot even tell what they have been through. It is excruciatingly difficult to even glance a glimmer; they are quite secretive really. So for individuals to act so….affected….it just looks….yeah.

”In academia, fashion is frivolous, sexist, bourgeois, materialist and beneath contempt,” Valerie Steele said. But one day in 1978, she was taking a seminar on European history when a classmate gave a presentation on the Victorian corset, questioning whether or not it was oppressive. The proverbial light bulb went on. ”I could have this new field in cultural history, in material culture, and study gender, sex and social psychology in fashion,” Ms. Steele said. That seminar led to her doctoral dissertation, which turned into her first book, ”Fashion and Eroticism,” published by Oxford University Press in 1985.