On April 2, Lady Sonia McMahon, widow of Sir William McMahon who was Australia’s prime minister during most of President Nixon’s first term, died at the age of 77. Her passing received little notice in this country but the obituaries in Australia, and the United Kingdom, were extensive. And the aspect of her life that got the most ink in them was her appearance in Washington one evening in November 1971 – or, more specifically, the way she appeared, coming down the White House staircase with her husband, the President, and the First Lady.
In the critical weeks leading up to India’s involvement in Pakistan’s civil war from which the nation of Bangladesh emerged, Nixon decided to arrange a quick meeting with McMahon to confer about developments in the subcontinent. This led to plans for a state dinner for the Prime Minister and his wife, which were put together so rapidly that Sonia McMahon, who had already worn some outfitsremarkable even by 1970s standards, had little time to select a suitable dress. One day she spotted onein a window, designed by a fellow Australian, Victoria Cascajo, that seemed distinctive enough for the occasion. It was black, but she opted to have it done in white.
And the dress was, indeed, distinctive. It was slit on both sides nearly up to the waist, and from just above the waist, nearly to the shoulder, was vented again, as were the sides of the sleeves. The sides of the vents were connected at intervals by rhinestone-studded straps, between which was a sheer pantyhose-type fabric. If a guest at one of President Obama’s state dinners were to wear it now, in a Washington far less formal and sedate than the one of 1971, gossip sites like Gawker.com would have enough material for at least a fortnight.
“You’ll be in every paper in the country tomorrow,” said the President as Mrs. McMahon walked with him down the staircase. That proved to be true. Luckily, Dr. Henry Kissinger was on hand to demonstrate his diplomatic skills at their most sublime when he remarked: “Mrs McMahon was beautiful enough to change any dull old routine into something special.”
While the dress raised quite a few eyebrows in America, the Australian media happily emblazoned it on front pages from Brisbane to Perth, and the original is now proudly displayed in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. In 2005, when Lady McMahon’s son Julian received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Christian Troy on the Nip/Tuck series, Australian journalists expressed the hope he would take his mother for the awards, and that she would once more wear the dress. He did bring her to the Globes and she did wear a replica of it – and, as the photos attest, wore it quite well.