A fortnight ago, Michelle Obama wore a navy embroidered cocktail dress by the American designer Oscar de la Renta to a cocktail party for the Fashion Education Workshop she hosted at the White House. The dress was, of course, beautiful and elegant and tasteful—like everything de la Renta, who died on Monday at the age of 82, touched. But, more noteworthy, it marked the first time in her seven years as first lady that Obama donned one of the famed couturier’s designs in public.
This was a big deal: Oscar de la Renta’s name is practically synonymous with “first lady” fashion—his obituaries identify him as someone who “dressed” president’s wives. But more than dress Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush (“fashion is non-political and non-partisan,” he once said), de la Renta shaped, changed, and altered our ideas of what the first lady of the United States should—and could—wear.
He put them in glamorous gowns, yes, but also encouraged them to buy trendier ready-to-wear labels off the rack. He pushed them—as head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in the 1980s—to promote homegrown talent. And he cultivated a sort of “first lady” style that has dominated for decades: tasteful, impeccably made, and above all pretty. Think: Reagan’s languid floor-length dresses in her signature sizzling red, or Bush’s silvery inauguration gown she wore for her husband’s reelection. No wonder Michelle Obama’s seven-year snub stung him so.
“To dress a first lady is an enormous privilege,” de la Renta told the South China Morning Post earlier this year. “When you design clothes, you often think of a woman in general, but in this special case, that woman is larger than life. She will mean many different things to different people. She is an icon.”
For that reason, first ladies have often turned to specific designers to help them project a certain image or message to the world. Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugenie, worked with the couturier Charles Frederick Worth to create the corseted, frilly gowns that would become the envy of the Western world (Mary Todd Lincoln was a fan).
In the 1970s, Vittoria Leone, wife of the Italian president, used her position to promote emerging homegrown talent such as Valentino Garavani. And Raisa Gorbachev enlisted international superstar Yves Saint Laurent to inject some glamour and worldliness into her wardrobe, and the perception of the USSR.
Yet, the relationship between American politics and la mode is more fraught. U.S. citizens don’t want their first family spending money on frivolities such as clothes. Indeed, many fashion-forward first ladies—such as Mary Todd Lincoln and Dolley Madison (whose eccentric style included turbans and feathers)—have been dismissed as clotheshorses and shopaholics.
Sometimes, president’s wives would promote homegrown fashion as a way of boosting the economy or saving money or resources; Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, championed certain designs that were versatile and economical during World War II. But fashion just for fashion’s sake? That’s been generally frowned upon, with many first ladies—even the more stylish ones—relying on their own dressmakers instead of big-name designers to sew their more special occasion outfits.
Jacqueline Kennedy helped change all that in the 1960s, with her unflappable chic and wardrobe full of haute couture. Still, even when she had her stepfather hire the American dressmaker Oleg Cassini to outfit her for public appearances, she mainly stuck to her French designers. (And Cassini, like other first lady clothiers, was not a big international brand.)
“They changed the labels to Oleg Cassini so it looked as though she was supporting American design,” de la Renta told the Telegraph in 2013. De la Renta did design some stuff for Kennedy too—notably, one perfect belted sheath in crisp white linen.
By the time Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1981, de la Renta had friends in high places: Vogue’s Diana Vreeland, Norman Mailer, and Henry Kissinger were all regular dinner party guests. He was also the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), in charge of promoting and fostering American designers throughout the world. (New York was not yet regarded as a global fashion capital at the time.)
De la Renta used his status to dress the most powerful women in the world, including Nancy Reagan. “We all signed a letter published in The New York Times that emphasized how important it was that our first lady wear American clothes,” he said once. “Jackie Kennedy wore Givenchy, but Mrs. Reagan dressed in American designers. What better endorsement for our industry than to have a wonderfully well-dressed first lady?”
While Nancy Reagan had an almost unapologetically glitzy style (she loved sequins and fur), she wore almost exclusively American designers whose clothes—if you could afford them!—you could find in a department store. (Indeed, Laura Bush once bought a shimmery red Oscar de la Renta gown off the rack for a Kennedy Center event and ran into three other women wearing the same dress that evening.) It was aspirational yet attainable.
Despite his criticism of her wardrobe choices (like wearing a cardigan to Buckingham Palace), de la Renta’s role in defining “first lady” power dressing has allowed for Michelle Obama’s wildly idiosyncratic, high-low White House style, too. Her tastes are more catholic—she is not particularly loyal, for example—and she wears a mix of cutting-edge designs from Comme des Garcons and Undercover, high fashion stalwarts like Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren, and retail chains like J. Crew. Yet much of Mrs. Obama's experimentation, sartorial freedom, and utter self-conviction align with de la Renta's own philosophy on dressing all sorts of interesting, powerful women.
As he grew older, de la Renta’s own clothes became less precious, too—his designs for Ann Romney on the campaign trail, for instance, were sleek, modern, and empowering. He even dabbled in a pantsuit or two for his dear friend Hillary Clinton. “She’s extraordinary, a symbol of where women want to go,” he recently said of Mrs. Clinton. “I assume we will have a woman president soon.”
Indeed, it would have been wonderful to see how de la Renta would have approached dressing not just a first lady, but also a female president. He would have probably done both in much the same way: with elegance and restraint, yet radically.