Transcript: Carl Anthony on the Power and Politics of First Ladies’ Fashion
Carl Anthony is guest curator of “Why They Wore It: The Politics and Pop Culture of First Ladies’ Fashion,” a special exhibit at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library
Jonathan Movroydis: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for another edition of The Nixon Now podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. You can follow us on Twitter at Nixon Foundation. And we’re broadcasting live from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.
We’re here with renowned historian of America’s first ladies, Carl Anthony. You can follow him on Twitter at @cathonyonline and at carlanthonyonline.com. He is the guest curator of an exciting new exhibit at the Nixon Library entitled, “Why They Wore It: The Politics and Pop Culture of First Ladies’ Fashion.” The colorful exhibit features actual and exact replica dresses designed to appear as if they were walking down the runway, including a dress from Melania Trump, which she presented for the first time outside Washington D.C.
But the focus of the exhibit is not what they wore, but why they wore it. What political and pop cultural messages, overt or very subliminal, were they trying to convey. Mr. Anthony is also author of a 140-page companion book of the same title, featuring more than 100 photographs of every first lady from Martha Washington to Melania Trump, many never ever before seen. It’s available for purchase online at nixonfoundation.org or amazon.com. Carl Anthony, welcome.
Carl Anthony: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Carl, you’re a prolific author of 13 books, can you tell us how you developed an expertise in this subject?
Carl Anthony: I was always interested in the presidency itself and looking atÉ But somehow always wanting to understand them, in a sense, access them as human beings, first and foremost. It’s so fascinating to me how quickly the public has always forgotten the fact that they are not marble but flesh. And that like every human being, they have their share of attributes and deficiencies, they have insecurities, they have great visions, they would really like in so many ways to change the country, perhaps look at various demographics that have been ignored or not given the full measure of the promise of democracy.
And as I began to look at presidents that way, I began to recognize the importance of personal influence. And as I looked at, first, their parents, I soon began to recognize that more often it was their wives who influence their conscience, through their conscience, much of their policy. And that to me was the story that wasn’t being told. That too often these women were simply being seen as objects and, you know, visually appealing diversions from perhaps the dryer story of a presidency, but that they were an integral part of it.
Certainly, in the case of Mrs. Nixon, you see the heart and the goodness and the progressivism and the march for equality that does emerge in much of the Nixon administration policy, particularly towards women, really is embodied by Mrs. Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: Upstairs you have a pretty remarkable exhibit that you curated. Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of the project “Why They Wore It”?
Carl Anthony: It’s interesting because it almost didn’t happen at least with me sort of having a vision of it. Wonderful Cheryl Saremi, the Secretary of the Nixon Foundation, has been here for a long time and remembered the great success of a program put on in the late 1990s in which they had various designers of first ladies who were then alive, Oleg Cassini, I think Victor Karsner [SP] who’s here with us again for the lecture series might have come, and Barbara Bush’s designer, and various people. And they had been a great success as part of a luncheon lecture series.
When she mentioned it to me, I said, “Wow, you know what? I don’t know about fashion and I’m really not that interested in fashion.” But then I thought about recent media interviews I’d done where I took these calls asking these questions in regard to Melania Trump, and I realized I’d been talking about this subject for a long time in the context of politics and pop culture.
Now, I couldn’t tell you what color or fabric or creation or any of that process, which must be respected. I mean, it’s a great creative process. It’s an important part of the national economy. It involves issues of trade, it always has. But there are experts on that. Looking at it through the lens of politics and popular culture, which by the way popular culture and politics in many regards usually cannot always be separated. It’s sometimes hard to figure where one begins and the other picks up, but that context to me was compelling.
Jonathan Movroydis: In this companion book, you compare the dress of royalty in kingdoms of the past, with the Puritan simplicity of those of the American republic. How did American leaders view dress at the founding of the republic and how did their wives usually dress?
Carl Anthony: Really excellent question, because we do have a letter of George Washington, it’s written just a year after he became president. The letter was written in 1790, he became president in 1789, in which he explicitly stated to a woman who is a friend of both his and his wife, that he and Mrs. Washington would be dressing in only American manufactured clothing. What’s interesting about that is that, in private, we have evidence that both he and Mrs. Washington still wore finer clothes imported from England. But that in public they only wore American made clothing.
And the newspapers of the day, which were usually very, you know, certain proper about mentioning too much of the privacy of women, mentioned Martha Washington, on her first day in public as first lady arriving in the capital of New York City a month after her husband was inaugurated as the first president, wearing the clothing of her country. And that this was a very wise decision. And the newspapers praised her. So really from the beginning, their clothing took on or had carried all sort of political implication.
Jonathan Movroydis: Over the course of the 19th century, we talked a little bit about other first ladies dressed at the beginning of the American republic, but over the course of the 19th century we see an evolution in dress. You illustrate this as much more of a complex story than merely dressing. These women were displaying their apparel. And a closer examination of their wardrobes was intended to advance a cultural statement or perhaps a presidential policy. What evidence is there of this?
Carl Anthony: There are certain figures that really stand out in being highly conscious of using their clothing to make a statement. In the early republic, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, you see for example, Abigail Adams, who was a very strong partisan, the Federalist Party of Washington in Adams, really preferring a simple ascetic that is a Puritan, a simple line thing, and unadorned. And she praises her predecessor, Martha Washington, for this. But she also really was an avowed anti-Francophile.
And, of course, Jefferson and Madison, of the opposition anti-federalist party, were very pro-French and they were supporters of the French Revolution. Dolley Madison was highly political, was kept informed of everything by her husband and was a great intimate friend of Thomas Jefferson. So she and her husband were adherents of Jeffersonian democracy. And yet Jefferson was very famous for almost being purposefully shabby in the way he appeared in front of European diplomats to emphasize the notion of this democracy. Dolley Madison felt that there needed to be a balance, that in her interactions in Washington with the foreign ministers of Russia, of France, of England, mostly all at this time European monarchies there were presenting, there are no European democracies. The American democracy is the first one since the ancient Greeks.
And so, Mrs. Madison figures a middle ground to almost appear simultaneously as a queen and commoner. She does this by her personal accessibility and mannerisms being friendly and talkative to people of all socio-economic levels. And yet, her visual appearance is grand. She wears clothing in bright colors and she takes to wearing the turban. And, of course, the crown heads of Europe are literally crowned. And that would be probably vehemently opposed, not just by anti-federalists but by federalist as well. But by taking on the turban, which is a little bit of a derivation of really the Muslim turban, which she first saw on representatives from Algeria and Turkey, and which of course became very popular in France, so it’s a little bit of a triangulation in terms of where she saw that and how she adopted it. But she wears the turban and she gives the appearance of being American royalty, even though that seems a contradiction in terms.
Mary Lincoln, during the Civil War when she first became first lady, she asked her husband and the Secretary of State whether it was helpful or a hindrance for her to continue to buy clothing imported. And they said to her, ultimately, that the Union Army, that the United States economy would be and helped by having less tariffs on imported goods. So she sort of takes this as kind of a patriotic duty that she will only buy American. But, you know, it would have been more expensive to buy overseas but I think apparently in her thinking she had somehow more money to spend by buying American only. And she very firmly states that she must dress to impress because she feels that she is representing, not just herself, personally, but the Union Army and she wants to convey an image of prosperity.
It gets to the point where there’s a little bit of buying, what they call shopaholic, a little bit of an addiction to buying. She did have some emotional problems and also great sadness. She was also quite an intelligent woman. She begins to panic as Lincoln faces reelection with fear that her huge debts, which I think we figured something like between $200,000 and $400,000 in debt, in modern currency.
And so she comes up with the plan to go to Republicans, particularly in New York, who got their political positions because of her. And she kind of comes to them and says, “Look, you guys should really be helping underwrite my debts.” Of course, Lincoln’s reelected. But then a month later after his inauguration he’s assassinated and she’s left with these debts and is in a panic and tries to sell her clothing in a public sale. It’s sad.
Later on, you start seeing it in the later 19th century. The issue of morality and how clothing is that first ladies are wearing is really now suddenly seen as you’re setting an example of the morality of the country. So, young Frances Cleveland wears these low-cut dresses and bares her shoulders, is petitioned by the Women’s Christian Temperance to stop because she’s a bad influence. Whereas Lucy Hayes, who wears her hair in a simple way and up to the neck is compared to the Virgin Mary.
Jonathan Movroydis: So when did it all change? You have the sort of Victorian age, when did an evolution of dress come after that? Especially you talk about dressing for the press during this industrial age, you have a rise of mass media through the Penny press and various other forms of communication. When do you see an evolution of dress beyond the sort of Victorian-Marian style of dress that you’re conveying?
Carl Anthony: It really is almost literally the beginning of the 20th century, such an extraordinary century in so many ways with the American story. I’m so glad you mentioned it, because technology is the silent dictator, if you will, of all of this. Because think about it, how do we know what they look like? How do we feelÉ? I mean, the public has always seems to have had felt it had a right to critique how they appeared, but it starts with engravings. And then you see lithographs, you know, there’s engravings of Mrs. Washington sold that don’t look like her. And Dolley Madison, an engraving from a painting. Then Mrs. Polk in a colorized lithograph.
Photography starts 1840s, you begin to see drawings in newspapers, and eventually photography. The technology permits their actual photographs to be published, first in magazines, which is on a higher fiber paper and the newspapers, 1900. The same year Ida McKinley is the first to appear in moving pictures, newsreels.
And with that, boom, it really just takes off. And so suddenly, clear, good full-page photographs start appearing in magazines. By the time Eleanor Roosevelt’s in the White House, color images start to appear. Talk comes, the talkies come. And so instead of these silent newsreels, we start hearing their voices. We start seeing them move. And we are able to more clearly see what it is that they’re wearing. And everything they wear, from that point on, really is closely scrutinized.
Some women, like Florence Harding, who was a feminist and her husband’s the first elected after women get the right to vote, encourages women to feel free to make the choice on how short they want to wear their hemlines, because of course, this is the year of the flapper.
Eleanor Roosevelt uses the opportunity of the income of a coming war in Europe, particularly in France and the encroachment of that on the French fashion industry, to promote the American fashion industry. But with the caveat of supporting buying clothing that carries a Union label to support garment industry workers.
Mamie Eisenhower in the 1950s, you see the great consumerism of the post-war era. She loved the color pink. Suddenly that becomes the most popular color. But all these other smaller industries around the primary fashion industry, she unwillingly helps really prop up, whether it’s the main fur trappers whose sales are lagging and she accepts a coat or it’s the little brilliance, the jewels that were sewn into her inaugural gown. In fact, she wears so many, love these, like little straw hats that it turns out we import our straw from Ecuador. And Mamie’s little straw hats were set such a popular trend that it’s been said that the economy of Ecuador was basically saved by Mamie Eisenhower’s hats.
You then see Jackie Kennedy using it as a tool of the Cold War. Basically, with the Kennedy administration comes a change in the State Department policy saying rather than using economic threat of war, we try to attract support from the nonaligned nations by a policy of attraction. And so suddenly Jackie Kennedy is this global figure, who represents American democracy in a simpler and more athletic way, in a modern way. And she represents the new world leader. And she does that consciously. She uses colors, for example, when she goes to India, studies with different colors represent in different provinces, in India, and she correlates her wardrobe to that. There’s not any one point where you go boom. It’s just an acceleration and then you get 1900 and it starts to just accelerate.
Jonathan Movroydis: Going back to the advent of media and technology or at least the acceleration of technology during the early 1900s, Hollywood comes on the rise in the ’20s and ’30s. You mentioned the motion picture in color. How does, I guess, the growth of Hollywood, affect the dress of the first ladies and also the power of the messages that they’re able to convey?
Carl Anthony: You have a few examples of some women who have foresight into this. And the power of Hollywood, the power of entertainment, really the emergence of celebrity. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Roosevelt, was very old school and she despised any kind of personal publicity about how she lived her real life, about her family. But her stepdaughter, Alice, loved publicity. And she’s often been identified as really the first American celebrity, certainly the first American female celebrity.
And she dresses very extravagantly. But all in a unique color blue. It’s called Alice blue, it’s the first time you have a first lady or a presidential daughter having a color name for her. And she is the one who chooses the material for her stepmother’s inaugural gown, because she saw it at the St. Louis Fair in 1904 and knows that this will bring in great publicity.
Mrs. Taft, on conscious of electricity and going to the inaugural ball in 1989, she was wearing an ivory gown that she helped very much oversee in design. Realizing that it was gonna be washed out by all of these electric lights in this big hall, so she has little pink brilliance sewn into that so it will sparkle.
Mrs. Harding is the first to have a name designer, a man who made his reputation as a costume designer for Broadway shows, Harry Collins. And she even writes the introduction to his book.
Grace Coolidge who really was, essentially, a somewhat conservative, middle-class housewife, native of Vermont, went every summer, lived on the farm there with her husband in the family farm. Contrary to that persona, starts wearing really radically short dresses, heavily beaded. Now, still cameras and movie cameras can’t and don’t capture Mrs. Coolidge in these dresses. But there are very detailed descriptions of them.
Indoor photography was really coming of age. But still studio kind of photography with proper lighting, it’s not the sort of things where you took pictures inside the East Room and you saw them. So we have actually very few, until Eleanor Roosevelt, pictures of these women sort of on receiving lines or at receptions. It’s so interesting, I remember an interview I did with Betty Ford, we were talking about her consciousness of first ladies. And she said she remembered as a young girl, which she was born in 1918, that Mrs. Coolidge was held up, like what is Mrs. Coolidge wearing and that was used as a sort of a model for other women to base their wardrobe on. And that Mrs. Coolidge’s picture was in like the Sunday retrograde section of the old newspapers with movie stars. So they were kind of mixed in.
Jonathan Movroydis: Since we’re at the Nixon Library, we have to talk about Pat Nixon. You talked a little bit about Jackie Kennedy. Certainly, she was a tough act to follow in terms of her dress and the grace in which she portrayed herself. Lady Bird Johnson follows and then Pat Nixon. In your chapter, you called Pat Nixon, “The California girl in pants.” She came across very feminine, but did she also exhibit any feminist qualities as first lady?
Carl Anthony: She absolutely did. And she did so, as it was as natural as breathing for her because that had been her life before she married. If Pat Nixon hadn’t had determination and diligence and motivation she would not have survived. She’d lost both her parents at a very young age. She basically kept together the sense of family between her and her two brothers by putting them through USC and delaying her own education. She worked and worked and worked.
She also, I think, built up a sense of self-respect. Mrs. Nixon always liked wearing pants. We have a picture of her, as a young girl, probably no more than 15 years old, on one of the rare days off in her young life and she’s with two friends, kind of maybe goofing around, clowning around and it’s probably here in Orange County, which is of course then largely agrarian, you know, all the citrus farms and berry farms. And they’ve climbed a water tower. And there she is, with her 1920s short cropped hair and she’s in a pair of pants.
Then we have the stories when she was a junior at USC working at Bullocks Wilshire store and insisted on wearing pants. And she writes in a letter to her aunt that a lot of her colleagues wish she would have worn skirts because they think she’s sort of attractive and she’s not having it, she’s just very serious.
So I think the influence of California, the openness, the weather, living outside, it influenced her in terms of her favorite colors. She loved the palette of citrus colors. You almost always see here in yellow and some greens and oranges, but she really liked bright colors. And she always liked wearing pants.
And so in the White House, when they first came in, what’s sort of startling is something that’s easily overlooked because so much else was going on, Vietnam and the new administration. But she wears the shortest skirts ever seen on a first lady to that time. We’ve got evidence that that is really something through the influence of her daughters when they were all buying their wardrobe for the ‘68 campaign. So when the Women’s Movement exploded and the miniskirt was in, she’s not so much wearing a mini-skirt sometimes as a mini-dress.
Then there’s a shift. What’s fascinating is to trace Mrs. Nixon and what she’s wearing, and then the story of the evolution of a popular fashion. But then the Women’s Movement, Pat Nixon by 1971, is talking about how more women need to be running for and elected to public office. She supports the Equal Rights Amendment. She talked about equal pay for equal work. And she uses, as an example, her work as an economist during World War II when President Nixon was stationed in the South Pacific and she’s working first in Washington, D.C. and then San Francisco, living on her own just before their daughters were born, surviving on her own. And she’s doing the work with all male colleagues.
And so that idea of equal pay for equal work is not just an idea for her. She’s lived it. She knows what it’s about. Then, as we have from the tapes and other evidence from the newspaper interviews, she comes out very strongly and rather surprisingly, right out of left field here. Like, what is she talking about? Talking about a woman on the Supreme Court.
And she really pressed her husband on it. And she was pretty disappointed that he did not come up with a woman to nominate. As you’re tracing all of this, and it really reaches its fullest measure as the president’s reelection campaign in 1972 is coming around, and then you look at what’s going on September, 1971. She does a national television interview on ABC. And she’s shown wearing pants.
January, 1972, she poses in Ladies Home Journal, a very popular national women’s magazine. And among the outfits, she’s wearing pants. That spring of ’72, the famous picture of her and the President walking along the beach at San Clemente. She’s got a kerchief and a coat on and she’s wearing pants. That picture is used by the President’s re-election campaign on a big poster about the environment. And think about that, because there’s a lot of people who after did that, you know, who have to approve that that’s the right image, not the least of whom are the president and first lady themselves.
And then, in September of ’72, as she’s on the campaign trail, she makes the very first appearance of a first lady at a public ceremony in a pantsuit, at the centennial celebration one of our national parks. You really can trace these benchmarks of the Women’s Movement to Mrs. Nixon’s apparel. And she was always embodying that California Look. I think her nature was more informal, but that she felt that there was a standard of decorum that the presidency required. So you didn’t see her wearing pants in the White House.
Jonathan Movroydis: The exhibit is “Why They Wore It.” The book of the same name is available at the nixonfoundation.org and at Amazon. Carl AnthonyAnthony, thank you so much for your time.
Carl Anthony: Thank you.