Eight anonymous and mostly lesser-known seamstresses, dressmakers and fashion designers who dressed first ladies for some essential public appearances are getting their recognition in the new digital exhibition, “Glamor and Innovation: The Women Behind the Couture of Fashion in the White House”. .”
Organized by the White House Historical Association, the exhibit was held through a new academic partnership with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Photos, biographies, portraits, and press clippings will inform online visitors about the careers, struggles, and, in some cases, racial discrimination some of the featured designers faced. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, for example, who designed dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln, was born into slavery. And Ann Lowe, who designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, was said to have insisted on delivering it through the front door after staff initially told her to use the back entrance. She, too, received no public credit for creating the first lady dress, a reality that in current times would have catapulted her career.
For “Glamour and Innovation,” the association enlisted its first digital exhibitor, MA/MS Costume Studies student Maegan Jenkins. With the goal of revealing some of the untold stories about the designers, she devised the exhibition, researched, and built the project with the WHHA’s David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History Digital Library.
The other six designers featured on the show are Sally Milgrim, who made Eleanor Roosevelt’s inaugural dress in 1933; Nettie Rosenstein, who fashioned Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural outfit in 1953 and again in 1957; Ethel Frankau, who designed Kennedy’s inaugural gown; Karen Stark, the creative behind Patricia Nixon’s inaugural dress in 1969; Mary Matise, who dressed Rosalyn Carter at the opening, and Frankie Welch, whose scarves were worn by Nixon, Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson.
In an interview Thursday, WHHA senior vice president and director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History Colleen Shogan said assembling many of the dresses in a physical display would be very difficult, as some of them are on permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The WHHA’s vast digital collection made the virtual approach a way to connect with people from across the US and around the world, she said. The goal is to reach “thousands and thousands”.
“What Maegan is saying is that some of these women were not from marginalized backgrounds, some were, but all of their stories are marginalized, because [many] people didn’t know what they had done or what their contributions had been, particularly in relation to first lady fashion over the last 100 years,” Shogan said.
As for why the stories behind these women entrepreneurs haven’t come to light sooner, Shogan singled out Lowe. “Ann was an African-American fashion designer, and perhaps one of the first of note in the United States. She designed and created Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress and is not credited for that in all the prominent newspaper accounts. [of the 1953 wedding in Newport, R.I.]adding that Lowe’s recognition came years later. Some of Lowe’s dresses are currently on view in “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Next year, the designer, whom The Saturday Evening Post referred to in 1964 as “society’s best-kept secret,” will be the subject of a major exhibition at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. Opening in September 2023, that exhibit will highlight Lowe’s career from the 1920s to the 1960s and its vital contribution to American culture.
In addition to the ivory silk gown with a plunging neckline and a full skirt covered in wax flowers and a lace veil, Lowe also designed all of the pink taffeta bridesmaid dresses for Kennedy’s bridal party. Although Shogan was unable to personally verify Lowe’s wedding day delivery story, he did refer to a written account he had read. Shogan said, “I had quite a few dresses to deliver that day. They said that when he arrived at the house, where the wedding was taking place, he was told to enter through the back door or the side door instead of the front door. He insisted that he come in the front door with the dresses and he was allowed to do so to give them to Jacqueline Bouvier.”
Shogan also noted Welch’s relatively anonymous status outside of the Beltway, despite having worked with a handful of first ladies. The opening of the Frankie Welch of Alexandria store in the city’s Old Town neighborhood in 1963 made it something of a household name, but not to the degree of the higher-profile brands tied to New York-based designers at the time.
“Sometimes first ladies choose to work with lesser-known designers. And as a result, their stories don’t get to be told instead of being put on a really prominent label that people know about,” she said.
In 1967, Welch, of Cherokee descent, was asked to design something truly American that the White House and US State Department could use as a gift. A scarf was created with Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary. Over time, his “Cherokee Alphabet” scarf retailed and remained a bestseller through 40 printings and numerous design modifications. The initial proceeds from the article were donated to the Indian Education Fund.
Around that time and into the ’70s, “things, of course, hadn’t changed, but they were in the process of changing,” Shogan said. “The idea of bringing diversity and other cultural heritages into fashion design started to become a reality. Rather than just being influenced by the French, the idea of being influenced by other traditional American resources and history was viewed very favorably.”
Welch’s bipartisan approach to designing for first ladies and wives of other Washington dignitaries also made her interesting. Shogan said, “She started with Lady Bird, and I think Pat Nixon said, ‘Hey, you’re not just going to design for the Democrats. You’re also going to design for Republicans. Frankie Welch said, ‘Sure, I’ll design for the first ladies across the aisle.’
While the role of fashion designers dressing first ladies has become increasingly politicized in recent administrations, Shogan said Welch has embraced bipartisanship. “You want to talk about the intersection of fashion and feminism. She saw herself as a businesswoman. She owned some boutiques. the [first] the boutique and the house, where they lived, were the same for a period of time, until she made enough money to move the family out of the boutique… “As she said, she was very proud of her business and making money as a of the first businesswomen. She spoke publicly about the importance of women earning more for themselves and not relying on their spouses for income.”
While first lady Jill Biden has been stricter than some of her predecessors about the designers she chooses to wear, her tenure, as well as those of more recent first ladies, are not covered in the new exhibit. Given the association’s focus on history, the organizers chose to stop the timeline with Welch and Matise’s work with Carter.
“We cut things around 1980. To tell you the truth, just anecdotally, I haven’t read much about Jill Biden and who she chose to wear,” Shogan said.
Rather, the decision to share information about designer choices can change lives beyond the designers who dress first ladies to generations of people who might decide to go into the field. Shogan said, “At the White House Historical Association, we’re always trying to find understood stories, lesser-known stories, and diverse stories. Of course, we’ve had 45 men occupy the White House as president. [There have been] no women [in that capacity.] But we look for ways to tell the stories of women, who have played a role in the history of the White House. We thought this exhibit was a perfect way to tell stories that people wouldn’t be openly or immediately familiar with.”
Asked if it’s a bit unfortunate that some of the stories about these eight designers remain a history lesson all these years later, Shogan said, “You always want to have an inclusive story made. The reason you want these stories told is that the only way you can be accurate in telling them is if you tell the whole story, even the things that people don’t know about. In a way, we only strive to tell the most accurate information [history]. If we’re going to talk about fashion in the White House and fashion and the first ladies, we can focus on some of the more prominent stories. But we can dig a little deeper to find some really interesting stories that will make it clear that there were a lot of female designers who really did amazing work that influenced fashion history and allowed first ladies to make personal statements about what they wore.”