Getty Images/Michael Stillwell
The president is no doubt the most powerful political figure in the United States, but make no mistake: the first lady is just as influential in her own right. In addition to the many speeches she gives, the appearances she makes, and the causes she champions, she is also one of the most-followed people in the country—especially when it comes to her fashion choices.
For decades, many of the leading ladies, such as Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama, have established themselves as style icons with their own distinct looks. What they wore was not only a reflection of their husbands’ politics, but their sartorial choices also had the ability to capture the public’s attention, unlike any other official. Their outfits—from the stylish power suits to the elegant inaugural ball gowns—were carefully and purposefully thought out and meant to send a message to the American people.
Since the premiere of Showtime’s highly-anticipated series The First Lady, all eyes are on these women of power more than ever now. Ahead, join us as we take a stroll down memory lane and look back at how first lady fashion has evolved since 1789.
More: Rare Photos of Presidents and First Ladies Relaxing While in Office
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Martha Washington (1789–1797)
While she is often depicted as matronly, Martha Washington was actually considered incredibly stylish during the colonial era. Following the death of her first husband, Martha amassed quite a fortune, and as a result, only dressed in the finest of garments, jewels, and footwear. For her wedding day to George Washington, she famously wore a pair of royal purple slippers with sparkly buckles, which has since been referred to as the ” Manolo Blahniks of her time.” And though she only dressed in the best, Martha made it a point to never look ostentatious during George’s presidency and chose to only wear outfits that were a reflection of the new nation.
Abigail Adams (1797-1801)
At the time of John Adams’s presidency, tension with France had reached a fever pitch, resulting in the Alien and Sedition Acts. Making a political statement through her attire, the second president’s wife rejected the on-trend French fashion of the time and often opted for more modest and traditional silhouettes instead. In a letter to her sister in 1800, she described the revealing attire as “an outrage upon all decency.”
Martha Jefferson Randolph (1801-1809)
Not all first ladies were the wives of the president. Thomas Jefferson’s daughter with his late wife served as hostess and informal first lady during his presidency. Though not much is known about Martha Jefferson Randolph’s style, she must have been well-dressed as an adult since an early letter from her father revealed how looking put together was important to him. He wrote, “At all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on… I hope therefore the moment you rise from bed, your first work will be to dress yourself in such a stile as that you may be seen by any gentleman without his being able to discover a pin amiss.”
Dolley Madison (1809-1817)
Known for her hospitable nature and lavish social gatherings at the White House, Dolley Madison has become one of the most iconic first ladies in American history. In addition to her warm persona, she was also beloved for her impeccable taste in style. After wedding James Madison, Dolley famously ditched her traditional Quaker attire for bright colors, fine fabrics, head-turning turbans, and stylish dresses and accessories from Napoleon’s France. Margaret Bayard Smith, a chronicler of early Washington social life at the time, wrote of her: “She looked a Queen… It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did.”
Elizabeth Monroe (1817-1825)
Years before James Monroe became president, he and Elizabeth resided in Paris, where he was a United States Minister for George Washington’s administration. There, her warmth, beauty, and sense of fashion earned her the nickname of “la belle Americaine.” When James took office, Elizabeth was in poor health and stepped back from many of her duties. But when she did make an appearance, she knew how to wow a crowd. One guest at the Monroes’ last levee described the First Lady as “regal-looking” and noted that “her dress was superb black velvet; neck and arms bare and beautifully formed; her hair in puffs and dressed high on the head and ornamented with white ostrich plumes; around her neck an elegant pearl necklace. Though no longer young, she is still a very handsome woman.”
Louisa Adams (1825-1829)
There isn’t much written about Louisa Adams’s style, but being that she was born in London and spent many years in Europe, the First Lady presumably knew a thing or two about fashion. She also was interested in cosmetics, which was still deemed very controversial at the time.
Angelica Singleton Van Buren (1838-1841)
Like Andrew Jackson before him, Martin Van Buren was also a widower while president. He enlisted his daughter-in-law to assume the role of first lady, and it’s not hard to see why: she was wealthy, beautiful, well-connected, and extremely stylish. Historians believe that even Queen Victoria was impressed by Angelica when she met her. For that presentation, she wore the same off-the-shoulder white gown she wore for her White House portrait.
Julia Tyler (1844-1845)
No one loved the attention more than Julia Tyler. At 19-years-old, the socialite posed for a department store ad that called her the “rose of Long Island,” which was considered a big no-no for prominent women of the time. By the time she served as first lady, she was a frequent figure in the papers. One reporter, in particular, referred to her as the “Presidentress” in his stories, in which he often wrote about her clothes, skin, and personality. While Julia was only in the role for a mere eight months, she was eager for attention, making sure she was always well put together in lavish clothing and costumes. A style icon indeed.
During her tenure, Sarah Polk was quite the fashionista. While James Polk was in office, the first lady often hired seamstresses to make dresses out of patterns she liked, using the finest velvet, satin, and silk-decorated materials. Frills were not her thing; solid colors were as they looked more flattering against her dark hair and olive complexion. Like Dolley Madison—who also happened to be her confidante—Sarah also favored Parisian designs, often opting for French accessories, too. Dressing well played a key role in her time in the White House since it conveyed the importance of the office.
Abigail Fillmore (1850-1853)
Unlike her predecessors, Milliard Filmore’s wife wasn’t into fashion. She once stated, “It is amusing to look on and see the great vanity of costume and the great effort made to rival each other at display, but it does not interest me. I seldom—never go into the parlor.” Instead, it is said she preferred reading and music.
Harriet Lane (1857-1861)
Considered the first modern first lady, James Buchanan’s beloved niece was no doubt a trendsetter. Her signature look featured ruffles, white berthas at the neck, and European dresses with low necklines—something that was considered not in fashion in America during the mid-19th century. While her ensembles caused scandals, her style caught on very quickly and many women of the time began copying her.
Mary Todd Lincoln (1861-1865)
Mary Todd Lincoln liked the finer things in life. It is said that while Abraham Lincoln was in office, she loved shopping and would spend thousands of dollars for a dress to be made, which subsequently left her in great debt. Like many of the designs of France, she usually chose to wear low-cut dresses in bright colors and floral designs, which were created by her personal dressmaker and confidante Elizabeth Keckley. As Mary put it, “I must dress myself in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity. The very fact of having grown up in the West subjects me to more searching observation. To keep up appearances, I must have money, more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me.”
Eliza Johnson (1865-1869)
In addition to being known for wearing elegant ensembles made of expensive materials, Eliza Johnson was also responsible for her husband Andrew Johnson’s attire. It is said she managed his wardrobe as a way to help maintain his dignity while as president.
Julia Grant (1869-1877)
During her time as first lady in Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, Julia Grant had no interest in fashion and only dressed in American-made clothes that were “becoming to my person and the condition of my purse.” Her looks were simple but were often made of rich fabrics accessorized with pearls, diamonds, and corals.
Lucy Hayes (1877-1881)
Though she followed the fashion of the era, Lucy Hayes often opted for elegant styles with modest silhouettes, such as high-neck and long sleeve dresses. Some praised her for her ensembles, while others criticized her conservative style.
Lucretia Garfield (1881)
Because Lucretia Garfield only served as the first lady for six months, her sense of style remains a mystery. But what historians do know is that she didn’t support “dress reform” that called for less constricting clothing for women since she believed it could be a potential threat to the traditional family. This has led many to believe she skewed towards conservative dressing as well.
Frances Cleveland (1886-1889, 1893-1897)
By the end of the century, French fashion still reigned supreme, but Grover Cleveland’s wife was beginning to rely more heavily on department stores in the United States. During both terms, her wardrobe was filled with bright colors and her go-to look was décolleté gowns, a style that many were critical of. Still, though, many young women looked to her as a fashion icon and copied her look.
Caroline Harrison (1889-1892)
Caroline Harrison was very devoted to Benjamin Harrison’s politics, and she showcased that through her clothing. When she designed her inaugural dress, she had specific requests for it to be made in the United States because her husband’s campaign strongly advocated for an even more prosperous America.
Ida McKinley (1897-1901)
While in the White House, Ida McKinley amassed quite a fashion collection. She often wore blue, as this was her favorite color, and gowns featuring high collars and puffy sleeves. The McKinley Museum in Canton, Ohio, has identified 20 of her dresses and is currently in the process of conserving each piece.
Edith Roosevelt (1901-1909)
While most first ladies loved the spotlight, Teddy Roosevelt’s wife wasn’t one of them. She famously wore the same ensembles to events but would change the descriptions of them in her press releases. Based on photos, the styles she’d typically opt for were frilly dresses that were embroidered with gathered sleeves.
Helen Taft (1909-1913)
If a first lady were to get an award for best hat collection, it would be Helen Taft. In many of her portraits, William H. Taft’s wife is wearing her hair in an updo with an intricately ornate hat featuring all sorts of florals and ribbons—a massive trend of the early 20th century.
Ellen Wilson (1913-1914)
Edith Wilson (1915-1917)
Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith, however, was very interested in fashion. While in the White House, dressing in a respectable manner was of the utmost importance to her, so she always carefully selected her clothing. Though her signature look was also simple, with many of her dresses being black, Edith only dressed in the finest fashions from France. Like many of the first ladies before her, she loved designer Maison Worth, but post-World War I, she often wore clothes by new designers Gabrielle Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Florence Harding (1921-1923)
Despite being an older first lady at the start of the roaring 20s, Florence Harding was seemingly very in touch with the times. With her on-trend beaded dresses and fur coats, she usually wore a silk neckband, which many young women adopted and called “Flossie Clings.” She also loved accessorizing her looks with a bouquet of delphinium flowers.
Grace Coolidge (1923-1929)
Calvin Coolidge’s wife fully embraced flapper fashion while she was the first lady. A cultural and style icon to the American people, she ditched the usual conservative garb of her predecessors for shorter skirts and loose-fitting frocks. Grace also loved wearing bright colors: she was impartial to all but was often wearing red.
Lou Hoover (1929-1933)
When Lou Hoover became first lady in 1929, she was recognized as being one of the “best-dressed women in official life.” But unlike the women who were previously in her role, she never wore clothing from French fashion houses. Her entire wardrobe consisted of American-made clothes, and at one point, only wore cotton dresses to help promote the cotton textile industry.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for many things—including her opinions related to human rights—but not so much her clothing choices. Simplicity was the name of the game for her during her husband’s three terms as president. She preferred conservative, everyday pieces that could be worn with blouses and accessories. Yet, there are still some fashion moments many remember her by: her shimmering blue inaugural ball gown and being the first first lady to be photographed in a bathing suit.
Bess Truman (1945-1953)
Bess Truman didn’t like the spotlight very much as first lady, but she still always managed to dress the part. During the late 40s and early 50s, prints and knee-length skirts were all the rage. As shown here, Bess looked effortlessly in style next to her husband, Harry Truman. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since a childhood friend once recalled that she “always looked more stylish than anyone else we knew.”
Mamie Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Throughout her eight years as first lady, Mamie Eisenhower was adamant about looking young and stylish. As she famously stated, “I hate old-lady clothes. And I shall never wear them.” She frequently wore bright, printed day dresses; many of them were sleeveless since that was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite feature. Mamie also loved all-things pink: most memorably, she wore the hue at the 1953 inaugural ball, and it became known as “Mamie Pink.” Accessories were essential for every one of her outfits, too. She often wore hats over her trademark short bangs, a fabulous pair of shoes with every look, and liked jewelry from dimes stores.
Jacqueline Kennedy (1961-1963)
When it comes to style, there is perhaps no first lady more influential than Jackie Kennedy. Simply put, she is the poster girl for timeless first lady fashion and continues to be admired for her elegant ensembles. Her minimal, monochromatic outfits, classic pillbox hats, and Chanel suits were among her most iconic looks when John F. Kennedy was in office, and even after he passed. Jackie always put thought into what she stepped out in, too. When she and the president would travel overseas, she insisted on wearing the colors of the host country as a tribute to them. To this day, she still makes her mark on fashion, with many trying to emulate her legendary look.
Lady Bird Johnson (1963-1969)
While Lady Bird Johnson wasn’t quite as memorable as Jackie Kennedy in the fashion department, she left her mark, too. During Lyndon B. Johnson’s terms, she gravitated towards bright, conservative numbers, wearing sunny yellow, citrus orange, and lime-like hues. Yet, at the same time, the Texas-born first lady was also best remembered for her casual style, including pants, western boots, and rancher hats, which she often wore on the LBJ ranch.
No one knew how to make a political statement through their clothes quite like Pat Nixon. During the height of the feminist movement, she frequently ditched conservative dresses for pantsuits, which many regarded as symbolic of women’s equality. And when she and Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, she donned an iconic tea-length wool coat in red—a color considered as good luck for the Asian nation—that served as a symbol of the budding friendship between the two countries.
Betty Ford (1974-1977)
Fun fact: Betty Ford was the only first lady to ever work in the fashion industry, perhaps explaining her adoration for good style. As first lady, she loved sporting large and colorful neck scarves, as well as bright and bold gowns that were nipped at the waist and had dramatic necklines and slit hems. In true 70s fashion, she also wore many caftans and capes and attire featuring the on-trend plaid and checkered patterns.
Rosalynn Carter (1977-1981)
Rosalynn Carter had little interest in clothes, and she made that clear when she wore a vintage dress to her husband’s inaugural ball. Still, though, the American people were obsessed with her fashion choices. A Washington Post article from 1977 explains that Jimmy Carter’s wife had a low-key and “non-flamboyent style.” Being that she came from a religious background, she opted for designs that covered her (think: high necklines and long sleeves). As the years went on, she dabbled with more color and wore eveningwear that consisted of separate dresses and blouses.
Nancy Reagan (1981-1989)
Being that she was previously an actress, Nancy Reagan knew a thing or two about glitz and glamour—and in the White House, she truly flourished. She loved lavish ballgowns from high-end designers, but she was especially a sucker for suits, with small, square shoulders and ornate piping, and chunky gold necklaces. Her signature hue was dubbed “Reagan Red,” and has led many to believe that’s why it’s the official color of the Republican party.
Barbara Bush (1989-1993)
It was hard to follow someone as fashion-forward as Nancy Reagan, but Barbara Bush made it clear she knew that—and didn’t care. According to a Vanity Fair article, during George H. W. Bush’s inauguration week, she reportedly made a dig at her predecessor’s fancy style, joking: “Please notice—hairdo, makeup, designer dress. Look at me good this week, because it’s the only week.” But despite her self-deprecating humor, Barbara paid attention to what she wore. She loved royal blue (later called “Bush Blue”) and pearl earrings, preferred jacketed suits with matching skirts, and avoided wearing anything that drew attention from her husband or gave him a bad image.
Hillary Clinton (1993-2001)
Before there was Blair Waldorf, there was Hillary Clinton. She was the one who arguably trend-setted headbands during the 90s. It even earned the title of the “Hillary Headband.” She was also very fond of tailored suits: throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary favored blazers and matching pants in bright hues, which has since now become known as her signature style.
Laura Bush (2001-2009)
Clean lines, conservative, and simple—that’s what Laura Bush went for during her eight years as first lady. Like Hillary Clinton before her, she often wore slim and tailored suits for public events. But Laura also loved herself a glam moment: for many state dinners and both of George Bush’s inaugural balls, she stunned in lavish, form-fitting gowns that looked incredibly flattering on her.
Michelle Obama (2009-2017)
Michelle Obama was a fashion risktaker as first lady. She wasn’t afraid of wearing bold prints and modern designs that previous first ladies wouldn’t go near, nor was she afraid of making a political statement through her clothes. She frequently wore the color purple as a sign of bipartisanship and championed American designers, such as Jason Wu, Ralph Lauren, and Jonathan Simkhai. Michelle made a conscious effort to support affordable brands, too: her go-to was J. Crew, which she first wore on The Ellen Show during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Melania Trump (2017-2021)
From the get-go, Melania Trump’s fashion choices were marred by controversy. When Donald Trump was elected, several designers—from Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs—refused to dress her. And who can forget that controversial “I Really Don’t Care” jacket she wore to visit immigrants? But despite it all, the former model made the most of her time as first lady, ditching her revealing necklines for sharp silhouettes and luxe accessories. During her four years in the role, she particularly loved trench dresses and Birkin bags.
Since she’s become the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden has been at the top of her fashion game. She frequently makes appearances in sophisticated dresses in bright hues and eye-catching patterns— many of which were created by American designers—and is seemingly committed to supporting sustainability. In the last two years, she has stepped out wearing the same dresses on numerous occasions, including this Oscar de la Renta number.
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