Long before there were fashion magazines, and eons before the Internet was even a slow-moving blip on the computer screen, we had first ladies. For generations, first ladies were a prime source of fashion trends. They’ve radically altered the fashion scene, often changing the fashion landscape for decades. Though we don’t look to first ladies for fashion advice as frequently as we used to, they still influence our collective sense of style. You might not realize it, but these five trends are our inheritance from America’s first ladies.
The skirt suit has become a staple of women’s wardrobes. Indeed, these elegant, feminine, and highly professional suits are arguably one of the tools women have used to integrate the work force. You can thank Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink suit for the advent of suit-wearing women. Though Kennedy was always admired as a fashion and beauty icon, she was also a busy woman who remodeled the White House, raised two small children, and helped a nation grieve a president. Her skirt suits just might have been the secret recipe to her activity. Kennedy ditched the long gowns of yesteryear and brought America into the 20th century of fashion.
Michelle Obama’s sleeveless first lady portrait sparked plenty of catty political debates, but Obama is not the first first lady to show off her arms. Indeed, the concept of the sleeveless dress is a direct inheritance from Dolly Madison. Other women of the time derided Madison’s sleeveless gown, but by the time Frances Cleveland occupied the White House, the trend had caught on. Women – including first ladies – have been wearing sleeveless frocks ever since.
First ladies are widely regarded for their elegance, but too much bling can stoke class envy and hostility. For generations, then, first ladies have worn elegant and understated jewelry. Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama are famed for their gorgeous pearl strands. Meanwhile, we can thank Hilary Clinton for chic and understated stud earrings. First ladies have made elegant and simple jewelry so trendy that many women now avoid buying more dramatic pieces even when they can afford them. Next time you consider that the wealthy people you know often wear the most understated jewelry, you’ll know that first ladies started this phenomenon.
Ball gowns existed long before there were first ladies, or even a United States, to be sure. But for centuries, ball gowns were rather understated. Sequined, embellished ball gowns are a direct product of the high-stakes Inaugural Ball, during which first ladies are heavily photographed and their fashion choices are closely scrutinized. First ladies responded by wearing increasingly dramatic and sparkly ball gowns. You can see this influence in today’s dressy attire, from sequined prom dresses to highly embellished evening gowns and wedding dresses.
Thirty years ago, makeup was designed to look glamorous, not natural. Enter Hilary Clinton. This Harvard Law graduate was much more than a pretty face, and had higher priorities than spending her days endlessly grooming. Hilary Clinton sparked the advent of understated makeup that highlights features and conceals flaws, rather than creating a new – and almost unrecognizable – face. By 2000, natural makeup was all the rage, and the trend shows no sign of letting up.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, first ladies almost certainly influence your fashion choices, even if you’re not aware of the influence. What was once a trend – such as the suit – becomes a permanent part of the fashion Bible when a first lady dons it, so pay close attention to what trends the next first lady chooses.