Nancy Reagan and the Revitalization of the American Fashion Industry

Nancy Reagan and the Revitalization of the American Fashion Industry

 A simple gray wool suit, like the one Nancy Reagan wore to their wedding in 1952.

A simple gray wool suit, like the one Nancy Reagan wore to their wedding in 1952.

One of the days during our trip to California, we took a tour of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the largest of the 13 federally operated Presidential Libraries. The library was built to house all of the archives of presidents since Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). Ronald Reagan's is located in Simi Valley, California and was also the location of my senior prom since it was the largest event space near the high school I went to. 

In the Library, there is a museum that details the life of Ronald Reagan and his presidency. There is also a section devoted to his wife, Nancy Davis Reagan. The world of Nancy Reagan revolved around her husband in his capacity as a politician following their marriage in 1952 and his election as Governor of California in 1967. At the time of their courtship, Nancy had been concerned about her name appearing on a blacklist and had approached Ronald Reagan because he was the President of the Screen Actor's Guild. Their relationship was always deeply close and many in the White House would later comment on how much in love they were. 

We were very much in love and still are. When I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it’s true. It did. I can’t imagine life without him.
— Nancy Reagen to Vanity Fair
 Reagan State China - photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Reagan State China - photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Once Ronald Reagan was elected at the 40th President of the United States, she became the First Lady. She dedicated her efforts to restore elegance to the white house following a years of lax formality. To that end, she replaced the China stored in the White House and while she was criticized for it, it was paid for through private donations and not with funds taken from tax collection. She so disliked paper plates that she insisted State China was used for all occasions, including being stored permanently on Air Force One for their flights. She also redecorated the living quarters of the first family, a move which she was widely criticized for.

Nancy had an interest in couture clothing that was unparalleled in the White House since the time of Jackie Kennedy and she used her clothing to communicate the elegance and grace of the United States as well as used her position to assert that politicians did not need to be serious and stuffily dressed to be respected and powerful. She used her interest in fashion and social events to turn Washington D.C. into a social hub, hosting 56 State Dinners during Reagan's two terms as president and using the occasion to invite socialites and couturiers alike. 

Mrs. Reagan tended to choose American Designers to bring bigger names to the White House. A favorite of hers was James Galanos, who designed both of her inaugural gowns as well as the piece to the left, worn for Ronald Reagan's inaugural ball celebrating his reelection as the Governor of California. She also frequently wore Adolfo, Bill Blass, and Carolina Herrara for official state events. These efforts helped to publicize American fashion and rejuvenate media interest in fashion in a way that had not been seen since Jackie Kennedy.

Nancy Reagan was famous for wearing red, so much so that it was colloquially referred to as "Reagan Red". Initially, the designs and color were created for her by James Galanos, but soon other designers created pieces for her in the famous color as well. Below is an example of a dress she worse for her Official White House Portrait as well as many other occasions, such as a meeting with His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said.

Her interest in couture fashion became problematic instantly. Allegedly, her inaugural wardrobe cost $25,000 (the dress alone was $10,000) which angered the American people who did not want to see their nation already embattled with the Cold War, Berlin wall, and difficult economy spending lavishly to outfit the first lady. She did later donate the garment to the Smithsonian, helping to preserve her humanitarian image. Following one of many such criticisms, she opened a public event wearing an amalgamation of second hand clothing, and sang a rendition of Barbara Streisand's "Secondhand Clothes". 

Despite these criticisms, Nancy Reagan was praised for her efforts to create well-bred, affluent, American chic. American women had been looking to Europe for their fashion sense, to the great houses of Chanel and Dior, rather than turning to the creations of their own nation. Nancy Reagan's efforts helped to return American interest to domestic fashion. Twice she attended the CFDA awards to continue her emphasis on the legacy of American Fashion. In 1989, she was honored with the lifetime achievement award for having served fashion faithfully during her tenure as First Lady.

My mother used to say, ‘Play the hand that’s dealt you,’ and that is what I have always tried to do
— Nancy Reagan, in her Memoir
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