Why First Lady Style Is The Most Important American Fashion Of All

As a new administration prepares to start its term, all eyes will be on the next First Lady, Jill Biden. What she will wear in the coming four years is likely to influence how the public views not only her but her husband Joe Biden’s leadership style.

Though not an actual requirement, it has long been the position and tradition of the First Lady to use fashion symbolism to translate, through the power of image, the overall attitudes, themes and messages of a U.S. presidential administration. Until a woman reaches the highest office of the presidency herself — and/or the traditional conformities of gendered fashion are broken by a president — this legacy is likely to continue as it has for centuries.

When Dolley Madison married James Madison in 1794, she swapped her somber Quaker attire for a more ornate, royal-influenced look that helped her to become a social maven in the Jefferson era. When her husband was elected president in 1809, Dolley organized the first inaugural ball.

Jackie Kennedy’s regal, ladylike looks may have been on trend for the early ’60s. But they also forever sealed in style the “Camelot” fairy tale legacy of her assassinated husband. Even as the former first lady moved on to new husbands and a new look, it was her days in the White House, pillbox hat on and white gloves in hand, that cemented her status as a forever style icon.

jackie kennedy, john f. kennedy, first lady style, first lady, inauguration
Jackie and John F. Kennedy.

Nancy Reagan’s sequined gowns and bouclé jackets helped to define not only the excess of the ’80s but also the celebrity clout of the presidency. The Reagans regularly hobnobbed with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor to Michael Jackson.

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Nancy and Ronald Reagan at an inaugural ball.

Hillary Clinton’s White House era power suiting — even in the midst of a public eye that scrutinized her every fashion and beauty experimentation and despite more personal controversy — helped to establish the Clintons as the ultimate political power couple. In the next administration, Laura Bush’s bright but modest skirt suits held her firmly in the role of First Lady as first teacher.

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Clinton in Paris during her husband’s first presidential term.

Fashion has always played a role in the public view of a First Lady. But it was during Michelle Obama’s time in the role that the fashion industry began to pay closer attention to every event and outing, with brands more strategically positioning themselves in alignment not just with the red carpet but with the White House.

Most recently, Melania Trump’s outfit choices, from her campaign pussy bow blouse to Republican National Convention military suiting (and let’s not forget the infamous Zara jacket in between) have read like Marie Antoinette hypberbole — but also as sartorial riddles for a woman who refuses to be defined by her fashion choices or her marriage.

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Melania Trump on Inauguration Day 2017.

In the lead up to Inauguration Day, Jill Biden has already embraced the tradition of wearing American designers — and young, independent ones at that. What and who she wears will not only transmit symbolic messages; it could also give the opportunity of global visibility to the brands she chooses, as it did for designers like Jason Wu with Michelle Obama.

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Jill Biden on Inauguration Eve, 2021.

Click through for a look at some of the best First Lady fashion throughout U.S. history.

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