By Jean Criss
In celebration of Women’s History Month, Fashion Group International (FGI) and New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) took a look at Fashion and the First Ladies through a virtual panel on March 12. It was a candid conversation about how our First Ladies are fashion trendsetters, and explored how fashion plays a key role with history, politics and contributes to the making or breaking of public policy.
Leading this inspiring conversation was moderator Robin Givhan (left, Senior Critic at Large at Washington Post); Fernando Garcia (Co-Creative Director at Oscar De La Renta); Valerie Steele (Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology); and Carson Poplin (Writer/Architect at The Fashion Historian).
A warm welcome was led by Executive Directors Cynthia Lopez of NYWIFT and Maryanne Grisz of FGI. Cynthia mentioned how important it is that we commemorate our latest women in leadership, VP Kamala Harris and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. From the choice of fabric, sustainability, quality, and aesthetics, to design and how politics intermingle. Maryanne shared an example about Eleanor Roosevelt as FGI’s first charter member, a pioneer of fashion as a First Lady. She commented how important it is for designers to capture the First Ladies’ beliefs through fashion and the impact their image has on our nation.
Many of our First Ladies used silk, chiffon and other quality fabrics, coupled with their unique style to reflect their personality to complement every special occasion. The designer’s goal has always been to capture our First Ladies’ best pictures, the essence of their beauty and their personality as they represent our country as one nation. This distinguished role as a fashion trend-setter allows designs of all types to move fashion forward in America and around the world. Our First Ladies have traditionally promoted American-made designs and set standards for what is practical and acceptable apparel for women in politics, women in the workplace at large, and women within families.
Robin asked a series of questions about designs, designers, trends, styles, and admirable trendsetters among our First Ladies, and the panelists to offer their views and perspectives. Here are a few highlights:
Robin Ghivan: What do you see as the role of our First Ladies?
Valerie Steele: She represents our nation; she is a role model.
Carson Poplin: She is a symbol of democracy and participates in fashion in a relatable and aspirational way. E.g., Michele Obama wearing J. Crew was very relatable to American women. She wore contemporary styles compared to classic traditional styles, very much liked by all.
Fernando Garcia: She dresses to be admirable. Fashion apparel should connect with everyone. I treat our First Ladies as any other “customer.” I listen to what they want. I feel they can do a better job wearing comfortable apparel they feel good in.
Ghivan: What’s more important for our American designers: policy or personal esthetics?
Steele: The role is to celebrate American designers, universal assumptions.
Garcia: It’s important to convey the First Ladies’ specific goals with their unique style and radiant glamour. We aspire for our First Ladies to look great. We have a lot of talented US designers. If we listen to our ‘customers’ (our First Ladies), then we know we (designers) did our jobs
Steele: They are expected to spend their own money on a wardrobe annually. I recall Laura Bush was shocked when she learned of this.
Ghivan: Rosalynn Carter stood out and took grief wearing an evening gown twice. Is this criticism appropriate given the importance of sustainability and recycling?
Poplin: During the time she repeated her gown, it may have been more acceptable due to the recession.
Steele: At inaugural balls, it is never acceptable to repeat gowns. They should be new, unique and show style.
Ghivan: Nancy Reagan’s styles were accessible and reproduced as readily available styles.
Poplin: A First Lady has the power to stimulate the economy by setting fashion trends for people to wear new styles. Creating new designs is an important element of fashion.
Ghivan: Melania Trump chose to promote European fashion. How did she get away with not wearing U.S.-made garments?
Steele: She did not use fashion in an effective way. She attempted to make a statement with that overcoat ‘I really don’t care, do you?’ No one really understood her message.
All panelists agreed that Michelle Obama, by far, set the most fashion trends with new styles using contemporary fashion celebrating diversity. Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush have enjoyed wearing trend-setting pantsuits inside and outside government. Jill Biden has added a flair of colorful floral bouquets with matching masks to her unique style and wardrobe. Our First Ladies all desire to be eloquent, fashionable, and demonstrate diversity.
Throughout the panel, the audience had the opportunity to look through photos of historic White House fashion moments, including our new First Lady, Jill Biden, in Oscar De La Renta:
These iconic fashion trends worn by our First Ladies are memorable and set precedent for years to follow. They celebrate Women’s History all year long with specific styles and designs that shift according to the roles they serve as our First Ladies. They are an inspiration to all women – we enjoy following their fashion designs in politics and government. A special thanks to the Fashion Group International partnership with NYWIFT for this special commentary.
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