Lady Bird Johnson
Each First Lady garment has had its own journey and arrival at the costume collection. Mrs. Harding’s is unique in its obscurity; no one knows how it got from Florence Harding to Madge Cooper Guthery. The paths of the others are clearer. A glamorous socialite donated Barbara Bush’s gown and Nancy Reagan’s was one of several garments allotted to museums. But Lady Bird Johnson donated her dress herself, and her exchanges with the collection are most personal.
“When and to what event was the garment worn?” asks the form that all donors fill out.
“On my birthday, Dec. 22, 1971, at the Argyle Club, San Antone’s. Lyndon gave a party for me,” said Lady Bird Johnson regarding her gown in February 1990. The Collection had contacted her office at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas, asking if maybe she had a gown to spare that she would like to donate. One easily came to her mind.
“At the present time, I have in my office an evening dress, ivory lace over beige silk from Mollie Parnis Boutique which I have worn on many occasions. It is a timeless classic — quite handsome, to my thinking. Unfortunately I am now too fat for it!”
Her letter, typed in brown ink on LBJ Ranch letterhead, goes on to explain that there were a couple of other gowns that could work, too, depending on what the collection wanted. An Adele Simpson, another Mollie Parnis, but they decided to go with the initial one.
Within a month, the gown was sent.
“We made the decision not to have the dress cleaned,” explained Carole Bryant, Lady Bird’s Secretary, in the accompanying note, “we have had varying luck with cleaning facilities here in Austin and felt that you would have a more reliable source.”
The gown has long, light sleeves and a nude slip underneath. The cream-colored overlay is a delicate floral motif. Its hook and eye closures are strategically placed, following the shapes of flower motifs as they cover the back zipper, rather than breaking the composition of the flowers with a harsh, straight line that simply cutting the fabric would have done. It seems fitting that Lady Bird would have had a gown like this.
Born in 1912 on a plantation in Karnack, Texas, Lady Bird spent her summers outdoors with relatives in Alabama. She grew up loving nature and brought this appreciation with her to the White House. As a champion of beautification movements, she promoted the planting of flowers and greenery along highways and in urban centers for visitors and residents to enjoy. “Where flowers bloom, so does hope,” she would often say.
She was not born with the name “Lady Bird.” Claudia Alta Taylor shed her birth name when a nurse claimed that she looked “purty as a ladybird.” From then on, her family and friends knew her as “Lady”, “Bird”, or all together “Lady Bird”.
Young Lady Bird grew up so shy that despite being on track to be valedictorian in high school, she finished third in her class, intentionally scoring poorly so that she wouldn’t have to give a speech at commencement. After graduating from a junior college, St. Mary’s Episcopal College for Women, and then from the University of Texas, she met and married future president Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1934.
Like Florence Harding, Lady Bird Johnson worked hard for her husband’s political career. When she met him, he had a job in Washington as a Congressional secretary, and as he moved onto other political posts, she kept his offices running while he was away during WWII and after a heart attack in 1955.
While campaigning with the Kennedys during the 1960 election season as LBJ ran for the vice-presidency, Lady Bird became familiar with the duties of the First Lady, but never did she expect to take on the role herself. However, she was present in the motorcade when JFK was shot and killed, and within hours as her husband took the presidential oath, she became the new First Lady.
As wife of an unexpected president, she was keen to use her role carefully. Her time in office was marked by old Southern hospitality within an era that rolled from change between the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and the Vietnam War.
As she came more fully into the spotlight, so did her clothing. She often wore designs by Mollie Parnis, who was a favorite among First Ladies as well as of Queen Elizabeth II.
When she wasn’t designing for celebrities, Mollie Parnis was mingling with them. She was known for toting her own collection of personalities, most notably journalists. Perhaps this is what sealed the friendship between her and Lady Bird, who had studied journalism as an undergraduate. That and the fact that they both supported beautification movements, of which, Lady Bird’s pet city was Washington D.C, and Parnis’ were New York and Jerusalem.
The child of an Austrian immigrant family, Parnis had some of the simplest roots of the First Lady designers. She went to high school, but regretted never studying further, and because of this felt a little uncomfortable intellectually in the company she kept. But education didn’t limit her designs. Despite lacking suitable sketching skills, she went into business, first with her husband and then, when he died, on her own.
Lady Bird didn’t have the same fame to her wardrobe that Jackie Kennedy had had, and she wasn’t known for taking risks, but together she and Mollie Parnis maintained her simple Southern tastes amid the whirl of the Sixties.
Lady Bird Johnson
Berger, Marilyn. “Mollie Parnis, Designer, Dies in Her 90’s.” The New York Times N.Y./Region. Last modified July 19, 1992. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/07/19/nyregion/mollie-parnis-designer-dies-in-her-90-s.html?pagewanted=all
Black, Allida. “Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson.” The White House. Accessed July 26, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/first-ladies/ladybirdjohnson
Folkart, Burt A. “Mollie Parnis; Dress Designer for the Famous.” Los Angeles Times. Last modified July 20, 1992. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-07-20/news/mn-3972_1_mollie-parnis
“Obituary: Lady Bird Johnson.” BBC News. Last modified July 12, 2007. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/2281304.stm
“Portrait of a First Lady: Lady Bird Johnson, The Early Years, December 1912 – November 1934.” PBS. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/ladybird/earlyyears/earlyyears_index.html
By Kerry Ulm