TIME fashion

‘Death Becomes Her:’ 100 Years of Exquisite Mourning Dresses

Widow's wear was once a rigidly codified corner of the fashion world

“Widows are all much in demand,” sings the titular character in an English-language translation of The Merry Widow. “And if the poor things should be rich / Then there’s no end to the suitors at hand!”

And with so many gawkers gawking, a widow ought to be well dressed.

Mourning attire from 1815 to 1915 is the subject of a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” opening Tuesday in New York. And though Harper’s Bazaar urged “nun-like simplicity” of widow’s weeds in 1868, many of the frocks on display are very grand, embellished with lace, fringe and beads.

The period’s dichotomy of dress reflects the opposing aspects of widowhood: on one hand, a widow’s two years of wearing black reflected her chaste sadness. On the other, it signaled that she was sexually experienced, maritally unattached and possibly endowed with a new fortune of her own.

Some also found all-black attire to be quite fetching. After Queen Victoria’s death, Consuelo Vanderbilt’s husband observed her in her mourning outfit and paid her a “rare compliment:” “If I die, I see you will not remain a widow long.”

Upper-class women like Vanderbilt could afford to have black gowns made in the contemporary fashion, reflecting current trends in all but color. If one could not afford a new wardrobe of mourning clothes, one might apply some advice from the Rolling Stones to their existing wardrobe and “Paint It Black” (or dye it, anyway).

Different expectations of attire were in place depending on what family member a woman lost — a husband’s death required the most, a parent or sibling’s a bit less. As they moved into later mourning periods, they might incorporate white or gray stripes, checks and accents and even mauve was considered acceptable.

The strict codification of mourning attire only eased up during and after World War I, when so many lost husbands, fathers and sons. As Vogue noted in 1918, “Women felt, and rightly, that the indulgence of personal grief, even to the extent of wearing mourning, was incompatible with their duty to themselves, to their country, and to the men who cheerfully laid down their lives.”

TIME celebrities

See Celebrities Who Wore Oscar de la Renta

From First Ladies to Hollywood superstars

Oscar de la Renta, who succumbed to cancer Tuesday at the age of 82, first gained global attention for dressing Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s. Over the next half-century the Dominican Republic-born fashion guru became a household name, and designed exquisite gowns for several First Ladies and the cream of Hollywood society.

TIME remembrance

Oscar de la Renta’s Life in Photos

A look back at the life of the iconic fashion designer

Oscar de La Renta passed away Tuesday at the age of 82. Born in the Dominican Republic, the iconic fashion designer first became famous in the 1960s for dressing Jackie Kennedy, and since then has designed outfits for several First Ladies as well as the cream of Hollywood society. Take a look back at his life in pictures.

TIME

Grandmothers, Blue Jeans, and Dressing Your Age

Kate Middleton can wear them, but can you imagine the current Queen in jeans?
Kate Middleton can wear them, but can you imagine the current Queen in jeans? Lionel Hahn—ABACAUSA

Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.

My elegant grandmothers would never have worn my decades-tested uniform of denim. But what should women aspire to in fashion as they age?

It’s sweater weather. Every morning as I choose which of my sweaters to match with which of my half-dozen or so nearly identical pair of blue jeans, I get this little jolt of tingly awesomeness. This is no exaggeration. Because though it looks like I’m standing in my bedroom closet in the New Jersey suburbs, I’m really in a brilliantly disguised time machine, whooshing back over the years to the long-gone days of my youth, during which I wore pretty much exactly the same outfits as I now where, except, back then, I was in college, whereas now my children are.

Even so: I’m young again. Or at least that’s what my blue jeans say. Ditto the sweaters.

But the point isn’t the sweaters. The point is that I, and most of my same-age friends, are still wearing more or less the exact same styles that we wore long before we’d so much as heard of stretch marks, menopause, gray hair, sags, or Spanx. Not to the office, of course. When we go to work, most of us put on some version of Professional Working Woman clothes: skirts, dresses, high-heeled shoes or boots, accessories, the whole bit. But on weekends, or, or if you happen to be me and work at home and spend most of your waking hours walking your dogs, you almost never have an opportunity to reach for the higher-end portion of your wardrobe, and exist instead in variations on jeans-and-a-sweater (or, in the summer, shorts-and-a-tee). And as comfortable, practical, and even fashionable-in-a-suburban-schleppy way as my daily outfits are, I’m frankly a little worried about what my clothing choices will be as I age. I mean, will I still be wearing a big Gap pullover sweater and bell-bottomed jeans with red clogs when I’m seventy? Eighty? Ninety? Or will my wardrobe choices be more in the universe of mauve velour track suits and elastic-waist capris in the p colors: puce, purple, plum, peach, pine, pumpkin? In my family, if we don’t die kind of early from cancer—and I’ve already had my cancer, thank you very much—we live forever, so these are serious concerns.

How well I remember the flair that both my grandmothers insisted on arraying themselves in until they were too diminished to array themselves in anything other than bedclothes. Despite having been present and accounted for during all the long years of the feminist movement, the youth movement, and the Age of Aquarius in general, neither one of them so much as owned a pair of blue jeans. Neither one of them would have been caught dead in blue jeans. Neither one of them could understand why a woman of any class or educational background whatsoever would choose to wear blue jeans unless she was spending time in the fields, perhaps bringing in the harvest.

That’s because fashion is subjective, unique to its time and place, taken in only in the eyes of the beholder, and fleeting—which is why a dress, no matter how stunning or carefully made, is a piece of fashion, rather than a piece of art. Unlike art, clothes do not reflect human yearning, complexity, faith, or fear, but merely the personality, wealth, or social status, of its wearer. But in the age of the ubiquitous blue jean, not so much. And that’s because bluejeans—sturdy, reliable, cheap, and long-lasting—are the ultimate statement of a society that views its members as equals. No pearl-and-ruby encrusted velvet gowns for the fancy-shmancy among us; not just burlap or rough cotton for the hoi polloi. Nope, here in America, we all wear jeans. And according to our jeans, we’re all equal.

Except maybe not. Because as everyone who notices such things knows, the slightest and most minute variation in the cut of an inseam or the way a pocket is stitched could indicate the difference between Wal-Mart and Saks Fifth Avenue—$26.99 for Gap jeggings versus $1,000 for a pair of Earnest Sewn Custom Fits, versus a mere $600 for Roberto Cavalli denim jeans.

The September issue of The Atlantic is largely devoted to essays on aging, specifically on questions related to steady rises in life expectancy. But what caught my eye were the photos of elderly people in hip-young-people outfits and matching attitudes, doing hip-young-people things (getting a tattoo, skateboarding). Though the photos are staged, at first glance I thought they weren’t, that the photographer had merely come across his elderly subjects in the act of aping adolescents. And that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? We no longer seem to know where the line is between the young and the not-so-young is, or if that line even exists.

This of course isn’t news. Youth and sex and glamour sells. Age and illness and poverty, not so much. But from a purely commercial point of view, ignoring the tens of millions in the older-than-forty set is stupid. More Magazine aside, there just isn’t a whole lot out there (prescription meds excepted) for women of a certain age—not in books, not in movies, and most certainly not in fashion. And even in More, a magazine targeted to grownups, the middle-aged women who show up in its pages tend to be dressed in the same fashions shown in the pages of magazines for young women like Glamour or Marie Claire.

And yup, I agree, women’s magazines are designed to make you feel ugly, fat and incompetent in general so you’ll buy the products they push. Even so, for just once I’d love to see a fashion spread featuring women of a certain age in the kind of dignified, elegant, and kick-ass clothes that my grandmothers wore.

Read next: 6 Items You Should Wear To Achieve World Domination

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

5 Ways to Stop Shopping Right Now

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

We know all the moves to the happy-shopping dance. They’re not the same for everyone, but the essential choreography is the uncontrollable shake, twist, and jump that lets everyone know that we just scored something good. But, while we’re big fans of the HSD around R29, it’s just as important to recognize when a bit of “retail therapy” isn’t feel-good or dance-inducing, but rather a lame attempt to face down boredom, anxiety, or the blues.

Emotional shopping may not always be our downfall — sometimes we’re truly looking for a specific find — but understanding our actions can help us nip this bad behavior in the bud before it becomes habit.

In an effort to understand the cause of our retail compulsions, and tackle the best reasons to back away from the cash register, we turned to a few informed experts. With their help, we can change our reactions to the first signs of impulsive shopping, so we’re not left with an empty bank account or a too-full closet. Ahead, learn when to say no, and how put the power back into your glee-filled, post-sale shimmy. Now that’s therapeutic.

2

The Bored Buy

It’s a slow Sunday night (okay, fine, Friday night), you’re suffering Netflix indecision, and your usual going-out group is nowhere to be found. So, you fall into a friendly little Internet black hole of e-commerce sites, constantly pressing “add to cart,” and before you know it, you’ve placed so many orders you’ve basically waved goodbye to this week’s paycheck.

As psychotherapist Peggy Wynne points out, the advent of online shopping — though not necessarily recent — is a huge part of why we shop when we’re bored. With the accessibility at our fingertips, “we get too much sensory overload and are triggered instantly,” she explains. “It’s sort of like online gambling or porn.” You don’t need to go anywhere and barely need to do anything to make a purchase — the satisfaction is instant, though not necessarily a cure.

3

The Solution: Dig Deeper
The best trick for conquering bored-buyer burnout is to slow down your reactions. Take a walk or look away from the screen before pressing the hovering Place Order button, Wynne advises. Practice mindfulness, don’t just pull the trigger.

In addition, we recommend you flip the script. Turn bored shopping into bored looking. We, too, have found ourselves totally submerged in a sea of e-tail tabs. And, we say, use your wandering eye to your advantage. This is your chance to perfect your eBay search terms, keep tabs on an auction item you’ve placed a bid on, track down those hard-to-come-by products, or, ya know, read up on the top trends and pieces that are actually worth your hard-earned dinero. Take a moment to make yourself a more informed customer, rather than just the most frequent one.

(MORE: Depression: A Real Life Guide)

4

The Bummed-Out Buy
You just got dumped. Your friend screwed you over. Your boss gave you the HR boot. All you want are Kleenex, a bottle of wine, and all the shoes you can find. You’ve been jilted and you deserve it!

Those shoes may not be for naught. Professor Scott Rick of the University of Michigan found in a 2013 study that retail therapy actually can lift the spirits. “Sadness, more than any other negative emotion, is associated with a sense that external forces (e.g., disease, weather) control the important outcomes in one’s life,” Rick tells us. “Shopping is all about choice, and we find that making shopping choices helps to restore a sense of personal control over one’s environment, and thus helps to alleviate sadness.” Now, shop away with your sad self, right? Not so much.

While sadness may be treated temporarily with a purchase, it also has shown that it can “increase one’s willingness to pay,” cites Rick of his research findings. Your decision-making skills may not be the sharpest when you’re blue, which can lead you down a dangerous and habit-forming path of spending beyond your means.

5

The Solution: Set Your Sights On Something New
Call us suckers for a silver lining, but we’re all about Rick’s suggestion that purchasing can give you back a little power in your life. Use it for good. And, should you find yourself in these kind of emotionally distraught shopping sprees, set your sights on good things on the horizon: that job interview you just landed, a night out with your very best buddy, a vacation that you totally deserve. Celebrate the good and screw the rest — at least in this moment — and should you make a purchase, make it one that will help steer your future in a brighter direction. You got this.

6

The Far-Flung Buy
You’re on vacation and you’ve stumbled upon a local boutique. Okay, make that severalboutiques. Problem is: You’re traveling on a budget and you don’t even really needanything, nor do you particularly have tons of space in you suitcase. But, you can only see two ways out of this situation: buy now, or face shopping FOMO when you get home.

“Restlessness, fatigue, fear and irritability can often be associated with what creates anxious shopping,” Wynne tells us. After all, if you’ve just traveled halfway around the globe, the last thing you want to do is return home with a big, ole carry-on of regret. But, all those scary what-ifs should never overpower your ability to make decisions based on your true desires.

(MORE: Why Knitting Is the New Therapy)

7

The Solution: Do Your Research
We’ll admit, this quandary is a difficult one for us. And, yes, we’ve come home from trips with suitcases stuffed before. But, the best solution is to do your research ahead of your potential fear-of-missing-out situation. For starters, stay away from labels that can be bought for less in your home town. Look for those brands that either aren’t available back home, or can only be purchased after major markups. Shopping in Paris? Stock on up drugstore labels that cost three times as much in the States. Hitting up Tokyo? Keep your eyes peeled for Comme des Garçons, Sacai, and other Japanese brands that may be less expensive overseas. Know your market, know your conversion rates, and know when to say no.

8

The Offer-You-Can’t-Refuse Buy
Three words: two for one. Why pass up a good deal when a store is basically giving stuff away? Well, because you don’t actually need a fourth pair of strappy, block-heeled sandals (even if they are marked down 70%). We’re with you on this one, but we’ve also learned the hard way that this kind of impulse-buying leads to taking home stuff we’ll hardly — maybe never — wear.

Much like bored shopping, this feeling of overexcitement also falls “under the umbrella of sensation-seeking,” Rick says. Scoring a deal can give us a huge sense of accomplishment. (Who hasn’t done a victory lap around the mall after a particularly good bargain was found?) “This [tendency to shop] also comes from wanting that inflated sense of self-esteem,” Wynne adds, “when perhaps other things aren’t going so well.”

9

The Solution: Be Picky
It’s neither easy nor fun to say no to every sale you come across, but start getting picky about when you indulge. We suggest rummaging through all those store e-mails you once signed up for, and services that alert you when an item is getting marked down. Stop buying becausean item in on sale, and start making decisions to shop when the pieces you truly want have finally hit the 50-off mark. We assure you: This kind of calculated score will be even sweeter.

10

The “Someday” Buy
Not your size, not a problem! You can — and will — lose those five pounds, so your latest skirt purchase will fit like a dream, you’ll have an important meeting to wear it to, and all will be right in the world. Or, so you hope.

While a bit of self-improvement is a wonderful thing, as Wynne suggests, living with this kind of hopefulness can make it tough to differentiate between what is realistic and what is fantasy. Rick makes a different point: “[This] reminds me of ‘commitment contracts’ where people basically make it costly for themselves to fail to meet a goal.” While expensive, too-small jeans might inspire action in some, we have a sinking suspicion that — during whatever time they remain unworn — they’ll make you feel more mopey than motivated. Investing in a way to work on feeling good now could have better emotional returns.

11

The Solution: Aspire To More (Not Less)
We agree that aspirational shopping is not a bad thing — but, we say forget size matters. Focus on buying items that challenge you to step outside your comfort zone a bit, reach for a goal, or make an effort to get out more. Set exciting goals that allow you to participate right away and shop with a new sense of self in mind. And, should your new self also happen to changes sizes, well, be sure to treat her to something that fits when the time is right.

(MORE: TV Therapy: 10 Shows That Boost Our Mental Health)

 

TIME fashion

Spanx Get a Shout Out From the First Lady

Michelle Obama praised the popular undergarment at a fashion education event at the White House on Wednesday

The First Lady gave a major nod to the company that’s become a staple in women’s wardrobes: Spanx, the makers of stretchy undergarments that have been making women look smoother and slimmer for a decade now.

Lucky Magazine Editor-in-Chief Eva Chen was among many fashion-forward guests at the White House on Wednesday for a Fashion Education Workshop to connect students with professionals in the field. Vogue magazine Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, J. Crew Creative Director Jenna Lyons, and fashion designer Zac Posen were also among the afternoon’s guests. During a speech in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday, the First Lady—whose fashionable flair has hardly gone unnoticed since she moved into 1600 Pennsylvania—spoke on the importance of hard work when striving to make it in any field, particularly fashion.

TIME fashion

John Galliano Returns to the Fashion Fold

Designer John Galliano becomes L'Etoile's creative director
Designer John Galliano poses at Barvikha Luxury Village in Moscow on May 22, 2014. Prokofyev Vyacheslav—Corbis

The flamboyant designer has been appointed creative director for Maison Martin Margiela, three years after an anti-Semitic outburst saw him dismissed from Christian Dior

Controversial fashion designer John Galliano has a new job as creative director of Maison Martin Margiela, a Paris-based fashion house.

Galliano had been out of commission ever since he was ousted from Christian Dior in 2011 after his arrest and subsequent conviction in France for uttering anti-Semitic remarks, which are illegal there.

But his most recent move appears to signal that he may be finding his way back into the fashion world.

“John Galliano is one of the greatest, undisputed talents of all time — a unique, exceptional couturier for a maison that always challenged and innovated the world of fashion,” Italian industrialist Renzo Rosso, who runs Margiela’s owner OTB, told Womens Wear Daily. “I look forward to his return to create that fashion dream that only he can create, and wish him to here find his new home.”

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told WWD the designer had attempted to atone for his remarks since his conviction. “He certainly has tried hard enough to apologize, to put the past behind him, to rehabilitate,” he said. “I think it’s time for people who care to move on. If this is the place for him to succeed, I only wish him the greatest of success.”

Galliano’s new designs for the fashion house are expected to debut during Paris Couture Week in January.

[WWD]

TIME fashion

How Justin Bieber Killed the Mustache

The pop icon's attempt at ironic facial furniture might be the end of the humble lip warmer

RIP, the mustache. Justin Bieber’s decision to sport one in public this week might represent the final nail in the coffin for a facial feature that had already gone from being a symbol of manliness to an ironic punchline. After all, what self-respecting Brooklyn poseur can be proud to comb his lip caterpillar now that the Biebs has one?

The pop icon appeared at Paris Fashion Week Wednesday with a wispy dusting of facial frizz atop his lip. He had previously experimented with one at various points in recent months, but it now seems to have gone beyond overgrown bum fluff to an actual grooming choice. No doubt intended to be a hipsterish affectation, the mustache instead made him look like a ripe pubescent whose father hasn’t bought him a razor yet.

But the fact that the nation’s premier former teen idol apparently thinks it giddily ironic to wear a mustache in public vividly illustrates the decline of a male style choice once proudly sported by film stars, political gods and war heroes.

The early 20th century was the mustache’s prime era, when mustachioed leading men like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable ruled Hollywood, and Teddy Roosevelt could be among the manliest of presidents with a veritable slab of hair resting beneath his nose. It was fashionable for U.S. airmen to wear “bulletproof mustaches” as a superstition in WWII and Vietnam — but none was more impervious to attack than that of “triple ace” Robin Olds, whose non-regulation ‘stache became nothing less than a symbol of rebellion. It was, he said, “ the middle finger I couldn’t raise in the PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles…with higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war.”

The mustache as symbol underwent a kind of metamorphosis in the 1970s, however, when it became a signifier of gay culture and, eventually, of pornography. Although it was arguably the mustache’s masculine potency that attracted it to these subcultures, its association with them watered down its appeal to the mainstream. It had something of a resurgence in the 1980s, thanks to the heroic efforts of Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds, but almost disappeared from popular visibility towards the end of the century, when goatees and sideburns became more en vogue.

By the early 21st century, the mustache had become little more than a costume accessory to most of America — whether they’re dressing as a porn star, as Saddam Hussein, or as Ron Burgundy. The lingering porniness of the ‘stache has also cemented it as the facial furniture of choice of the stereotypical creepy uncle or teacher.

This wane in popularity is a development some have linked to a general decline in American maleness. Here’s Wesley Morris, writing in the Boston Globe in 2009, on how the newly sensitive men of the 2000s, “afraid of seeming too serious about being male,” relegated the mustache to the vintage store bargain bin:

“To be a guy became a kind of adolescent joke – think Jackass and the G4 network – and to be a man, a grownup, meant shaving your upper lip, and possibly maintaining your eyebrows. There are more college-educated American men now that there have ever been, and while education can create self-confidence, it’s also good at creating self-consciousness. You could say that a huge swath of American men have simply misplaced the self-confidence required to wear a single strip of hair on their lips.”

Today, men who wear a mustache do so with a giant pair of inverted commas on either side of it. So firmly has it become a joke that an annual charitable event (“Movember”) now exists daring men to grow one for an entire month each year — as if the act of wearing a mustache was now so hilariously out of fashion, men need to be challenged to do it.

But now that young Bieber has sported a mustache, no doubt in an attempt to co-opt some hipsterish cool for his increasingly fragile personal brand, the irony is almost entirely washed out. It’s too soon to say, but this could be the final death knell for the hipster mustache. And who would wear one then?

Morris, in his excellent 2009 essay, calls for a hero to bring the mustache back into public esteem — but the negative associations may now run too deep for that. This reporter once shaved a beard off into a mustache for a party, and was greeted with cheers, laughter and selfie invitations. But midway through the night, I caught myself in a mirror and realized my mustache was no longer ironic. To most people I encountered, it was just a mustache. I’ve never worn one again.

TIME fashion

6 Embarrassing Office Wardrobe Malfunctions to Avoid

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Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

A wardrobe fail doesn’t have be as spectacular as a popped zipper to affect how others view your work. Even loose threads can raise suspicions of loose ends on your report.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

Loose Threads

Buttons and buttonholes are notorious. Also snip away stragglers at the hem.

Scuffed Shoes

No time to bust out the shoe polish? Give the leather a quick buffing with the microfiber cloth that you use for dusting.

(MORE: 11 Recipes That Prove Bacon Is Better)

Run-Down Heels

Bring them to a cobbler. Meanwhile, disguise nicked areas with a permanent marker of the same color.

Dingy White Shirts

Don’t try to get a second wearing out of anything white. “Any residue of perspiration, lotion, or perfume easily discolors the fabric if it sits too long, so launder immediately after wearing,” says Steve Boorstein, the founder of TheClothingDoctor.com. To return a yellowed garment to its former glory, wash it in a sink in the hottest water that the fabric will allow using an ounce of oxygen bleach (such as OxiClean; $8 at drugstores) for every gallon of water; let soak from 30 minutes to two hours.

(MORE: The Cities With the Worst (and Best!) Drivers)

Sweaters With Fuzz Balls

Target the high-abrasion areas (underarms, cuffs, the sides of the torso, and wherever the strap of your handbag hits) with an electric fabric shaver, which will work better than the manual options. (Try Evercare; $9, amazon. com.) “Place one hand underneath the sweater and depill with the other hand,” says Boorstein. “That way, you won’t apply too much pressure and thin out the knit.” In a pinch, use a single-blade razor—gently, please!

Beat-Up Bags

Wipe dull or scratched leather with a clear leather conditioner (like Leather Spa; $10, leatherspa.com). Also check for frayed stitches, which tend to start on the handles.

(MORE: This Is the Best Pizza Cheese, According to Science)

TIME fashion

From Eleanor to Michelle: The Inside Scoop on First Lady Fashion

Tim Gunn and other fashion experts weigh in on First Ladies from Dolley Madison to Michelle Obama

It’s hard to imagine a job in which the clothes you wear to work are more closely scrutinized than that of the First Lady of the United States. Not even the President is so meticulously judged. And in any event, choosing between a dark suit or a tan suit (gasp!) doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error.

The First Lady’s fashion choices are — and always have been — imbued with political power and laden with controversy, as I learned the National Archives’ event “Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions,” a raucous panel discussion—not an oxymoron, turns out—moderated by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn. Fashionistas present included Valerie Steele, museum curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator at the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection and designer Tracy Reese.

Admirers have praised Michelle Obama’s elegance — Gunn called her “divine” — while her critics have lambasted her informality (remember Shortsgate?). But striking the delicate balance between the need of the First Lady to meet high fashion standards while appealing to America’s populist inclinations has always preoccupied the women who’ve held the office.

Dolley Madison (in the White House 1809 to 1817) was derided for being too flashy for American tastes, even though her most well-known dress, a red, high-waisted, no-corset, “empire style” gown, evokes the republican values of ancient Rome. Dolley’s famous red dress is rumored to have been made out of White House curtains she rescued from British arsonists during the War of 1812 — a legend that is, tragically, almost certainly just that.

By the latter half of the century, Dolley’s sleek gowns were old news and American men were all about that bass, no treble. That fuller look was reflected in the wardrobe of the Harriet Lane, the niece of lifelong bachelor President James Buchanan and the first person to be called “First Lady” by the press (they simply didn’t know what else to call her).

According to one writer in the 1880s, “No man would stay long with a woman whose skinny buttocks he could hold in the palm of one hand,” said FIT’s Valerie Steele. And as Tracy Reese noted, we may have come full circle on the big-bottomed style of the era. “Sounds like Nicki Minaj,” she said.

Through the end of the turn of the century, the Roaring Twenties and into the Depression, some First Ladies wore the fashions of their era better than others. Edith Wilson, wife to President Woodrow Wilson, liked to do her own alterations to her clothes with mixed success—Gunn guessed she’d be the first jettisoned from Project Runway. And the image of Eleanor Roosevelt as intrepid if somewhat unfashionable is not altogether true. The Smithsonian’s Lisa Graddy told of a dress that looks conservative on a mannequin but that Mrs. Roosevelt wore with the sleeves removed and unclasped, giving the gown a “nice, draped, low back.”

“She was a bit of a minx,” added Gunn.

The First Lady’s fashion decisions have always had political impact but never more so than in the era of mass visual media, beginning roughly with Jackie Kennedy’s gilded tenure. Jackie’s famously expensive, quasi-aristocratic taste in clothes was such that GOP politicos deliberately tailored the styles of the next Republican woman to inhabit the White House, Pat Nixon, to strike an everywoman note meant to appeal to the supposedly average Americans in President Nixon’s “silent majority.”

Then in the 1980’s, Valerie Steele from FIT notes that Nancy Reagan “almost single handedly, transformed red from the color of Communist revolution to the color of Republicans.” Not a bad scalp for the better half of Mr. “tear down that wall.”

Not all First Ladies are particularly interested in fashion. Hillary Clinton was surprised by the amount of attention her clothes attracted, Steele said. And Laura Bush was largely uninterested in the kind of high-concept fashion thinking that preoccupied someone like Nancy Reagan, who, we’re told, meticulously labeled every dress with the last occasion on which it was worn.

The fashion pendulum has swung back again with Michelle Obama, who, notwithstanding her taste for affordable middle-brow threads (she’s a J. Crew fan), seems to have a personal stake in the statements she makes with her formal wear. Tracy Reese designed the dress Obama wore to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, a dress that was delivered with sleeves attached, Reese said. Obama, who has a well-known fondness for going sleeveless, personally had the sleeves removed.

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