Anita McBride served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. She is now a women’s initiative fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and an executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts is deputy director of the women’s initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.
This week, world leaders and advocates descend on New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly — first spouses from across the globe included in their ranks. These First Ladies and Gentlemen will address forums across New York City on issues such as poverty, health, education, equality, and economics. If history is a guide, more time will be spent examining their fashion decisions than the style of their influence on a global stage. A look beyond the headlines reveals that for decades, First Ladies have made the most of that superficial fascination to further their work to benefit the people they serve.
Everyone knows the pillbox hat glamorized by Jackie O, the classic pearls on Barbara Bush, and sleek sleeveless dresses worn by Michelle Obama. As recently as a few weeks ago, Mrs. Trump made headlines not for the comfort she offered to hurricane victims, but for her stilettos. And yet, as the saying goes, the work of First Ladies to advance policy and improve lives is done backwards, and in those same trend-setting heels, often without notice.
With a distinct podium to elevate attention on critical issues, First Ladies are uniquely positioned to make a difference. As hostesses, teammates, champions, and policy advocates, they are seizing on opportunities to lead, advancing issues that have a direct and daily impact on the lives of those they serve. And in many cases, First Ladies have smartly turned the public’s fascination with their wardrobe into an impactful tool for both advocacy and social change.
In 1961, Jackie Kennedy knew the power of image to branding the new administration as a symbol of the “youthful energy and cultured internationalism.” She established the vital role fashion would play in cementing the Kennedy’s image as a youthful, dynamic, modern-thinking couple very early on. Her natural appeal as a sophisticated and cultured wife, mother, and First Lady was a powerful symbol of American ideals in a Cold War world, and it played a vital role in framing the values and legacy of the Kennedy administration at home and abroad.
Rosalynn Carter made headlines when she re-wore a dress to the inaugural ball that she had previously worn to her husband’s gubernatorial inauguration. Critics said she was missing an opportunity to champion the American fashion industry, but to the Carters, the notion of re-wearing the dress enhanced their focus on modesty and frugality during a time of economic recession. Mrs. Carter no doubt bucked other trends set previously for the role of First Lady. Her dedication to advocating for mental health awareness, her testimony to Congress, and the president’s recognition of her leadership on the issue shaped the Office of First Lady as we know it today.
In May 2005, First Lady Laura Bush invited former First Lady Nancy Reagan to join her for the opening of an exhibit at the Kennedy Center that featured red dresses and suits worn by seven of America’s first ladies. The exhibit launched a national awareness campaign for women about heart disease sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Bush had agreed to spearhead this health effort, using the symbol of a red dress to draw awareness of the number one killer of women. When the dresses traveled to the Reagan Library in 2007, Mrs. Bush accepted Reagan’s invitation to join her there. The public, who reportedly lambasted Reagan’s expensive taste as First Lady, was now lining up to see her clothes.
First Lady Michelle Obama used accessible fashion to heighten her appeal to middle America. She understood that fashion was a way to frame her own independence and would add to her portfolio while amplifying her husband’s agenda. Acknowledging the growing value and profile of the fashion industry, Michelle Obama hosted a Fashion Education Workshop at the White House, introducing the next generation of designers to the art of style as part of her Reach Higher initiative. The initiative worked to inspire all students in America to complete their education past high school and demonstrated a variety of options, from four-year colleges to trade schools and training programs.
This week, as leaders gather on the global stage in New York, let’s remember what’s really fashionable: moving communities, countries, and the world forward. Because First spouses are changing and improving the lives of the people they serve.