Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday at age 96, was rarely included on any list of best-dressed first ladies. In general, she was not called “elegant” or “trendsetter.” She did not participate in the White House dress-up game, at least as designed by her predecessors such as Dolley Madison and Jackie Kennedy. Most of the time she seemed to actively reject him.
But that doesn’t mean Mrs. Carter didn’t fully understand the power and political use of clothing, or how to deploy it strategically during her time in Washington. In fact, it is possible to see her time as first lady as a model for an alternative approach to image-making that is still used today.
Starting with Mrs. Carter’s statement, after Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, that the only item she would take to the White House from Georgia was her sewing machine. As a symbol, it was a succinct message to anyone who would listen that this was, in fact, a recession-era administration that would prioritize the economy and affordability. It was also a nod to her own peasant roots as the daughter of a dressmaker. And it set the tone for what came next, which was the administration’s biggest clothing scandal.
That took place during the 1977 inauguration, after the Carters made history by becoming the first couple to walk instead of bike during the inaugural parade. (Ms. Carter’s strolling-appropriate teal high-collared canvas coat, designed by Dominic Rompollo, a New York designer, knee-high leather boots, and leather gloves look remarkably modern.)
Instead of wearing a new dress to the inaugural balls, Mrs. Carter wore the same high-necked, caftan-style, gold-embroidered blue chiffon dress by Mary Matise that she had purchased and wore to Carter’s inauguration as governor. of Georgia in 1971.
The general reaction was shock and horror. Clothes used at the inauguration! Although Mrs. Carter added a new gold-trimmed cape to dress it up a bit, also from Mr. Rompollo and purchased through Jason’s, a store in Americus, Georgia, the New York Times labeled the dress “old” and called to the “sentimental” Mrs. Carter for wearing the dress again. The new first lady’s support for Seventh Avenue was questioned as the fashion industry expressed its disdain, as was her ability to represent the United States with appropriate glamor on the world stage, even though glamor never had been the Carters’ draw in the first decade. place. Humble morality was more similar.
To that end, the inauguration dress and the values it represented set the precedent for Mrs. Carter’s tenure in the White House. She continued shopping at the rack (another favorite boutique of hers had been A. Cohen & Sons, also in Americus) and decorated the White House for Christmas with pine cones, peanuts and eggshells.
But she also continued to break sartorial rules, becoming the first first lady (another in her litany of firsts) to set up an office in the East Wing, not to mention the first to carry a briefcase to work every morning. A briefcase!
Perhaps understanding that such an obvious sign of her more active advisory role in the administration could be as surprising to the general electorate as her closet purchase, Mrs. Carter was careful to pair that potentially controversial office accessory with more traditional shirtdresses, often detailed with dough collars or other more classic and feminine embellishments, often in colors such as lilac and fuchsia, garments more often associated with educated housewives than with political leaders. Nina Hyde of the Washington Post called them “cute and neat, comfortable and appropriate and always made in America.”
They seemed modest, in every sense of the word, which was also the spirit of the Carter administration.
The Carters, of course, were replaced by the Reagans, whose approach to show business in the executive office was pretty much the opposite of “modest.” Mrs. Carter’s style of dress was relegated to cautionary tale status in the political handbook. Conventional wisdom said that the American people simply didn’t want their first hostess to look so much like them after all, at least not once she (or her husband) had been chosen.
However, just as history has become kinder to the Carter administration, and Mr. Carter himself has become something of a model for a former president, it is also true that Mrs. Carter’s style as first lady of suddenly seems unexpectedly relevant. After all, Jill Biden, the current resident of the East Wing, is also known for her friendliness, her penchant for shirtdresses, her lack of interest in telegraphing his fashion choices, and her penchant for appearing twice with the same thing. Or three times.
In fact, she is famous for it, although the world watching her no longer considers her wearing old clothes. They call it sustainability. And Rosalynn Carter did it, yes, first.