First Lady Fashion: Part III, Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan’s gown came into the Costume Collection’s possession not quite as easily as Lady Bird Johnson’s did.  Always a fan of fashion, Mrs Reagan was certainly interested in donating her clothing to museums and collections—but not necessarily to Ohio State.nreaganwiki

In the early Eighties, the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards were founded to celebrate great designers and journalists. In support of the new awards, Mrs. Reagan decided to donate some of her clothing to suitable groups across the country. She put Ann Keagy of Parsons School of Design in charge of the process.

Nancy’s goal was to inspire the youth, in so many words. She wanted “to provide these promising young students with the opportunity to study the workmanship of established American designers,” as she said in a January 1982 telegram to Mrs. Keagy.

She also listed for Keagy some potential recipients, which included well-known museums like The Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as smaller ones like The Chicago Historical Society, The Phoenix Art Museum, and The Texas Fashion Collection, which was and still is operated by the University of North Texas.

Hoping to acquire a garment for the Costume Collection, the curator wrote to Mrs. Reagan in the White House, whose office forwarded the letter to Ann Keagy.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Keagy was underwhelmed by the location and stature of Ohio State’s collection at the time. “Institutions were chosen because they have the finest facilities,” and they “are able to readily show the garments to students, historians and the general public,” she explained in her reply. “Another prime consideration was the geographic location of the museums in order to serve the greatest number of people across the country.” Poor Columbus.

In 1984, the collection again attempted to acquire a gown, writing to the White House like before. And, again, was unsuccessful.

“I completely understand Mrs. Reagan’s wanting to keep the beautiful Galanos second inaugural gown,” wrote the curator in response to their rejection. “If, however, there is a garment in the First Lady’s wardrobe that she might someday no longer have need of, would you keep in mind the growing Historic Costume Collection here at The Ohio State University.”

Eight years later, in February of 1992, they received this gown.

It was designed by James Galanos, “Jimmy” as Nancy called him. Long green and blue panels are cinched at the waist by a tight sash at the top of the skirt. Thick shoulder pads mimic these bold lines. Out of the Sixties and into the Eighties, Nancy Reagan’s dress stands in contrast to Lady Bird Johnson’s. No soft florals; instead, strong color block stripes.

For Nancy Reagan, fashion was natural. Like her husband Ronald, she came from Hollywood and an acting background, working under the name Nancy Davis. The two had met through the industry. (As a funny nod to their future as Cold War political champs, they first met thanks to communism. Another actress, also named Nancy Davis, had been blacklisted, and the future Nancy Reagan was having trouble sorting out the confusion. She went to speak with the president of the Screen Actors Guild, who happened to be Ronald Reagan.)

Anne Frances Robbins was born in 1921 to an actress mother and a car salesman father. They divorced soon after, and young “Nancy,” as Anne Frances was called, was sent to live with her aunt and uncle. Her mother traveled around the country for acting gigs, inspiring Nancy’s future career. After attending the Girls’ Latin School and Smith College, Nancy began acting professionally onstage, and she was eventually hired by MGM for screen. She moved out to Hollywood and worked for several years, befriending notable stars of day. She met Ronald Reagan in 1949, and the two married in a small ceremony in 1952.

Ronald Reagan slowly transitioned from actor to politician by hosting a series called “General Electric Theater.” This also correlated with his switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. By 1967, he was governor of California, and in 1981, he became president.

As First Lady during the Eighties, Nancy Reagan was a fixture of the Cold War and its resulting political shifts. While the Reagans pushed for American self-reliance in contrast to communism, she wore expensive gowns, but didn’t advertise their designers. She chose classic pieces that were strong, but not overly fashion-forward, and she was perhaps the most careful First Lady about her appearance to date. She was 5’ 4”, slight, and precise. And above all, she wore red.

On the day the American hostages were released in Iran, rising First Lady Nancy Reagan wore Galanos. Her attire for the inaugural ball was a heavily beaded, one-shouldered gown that was considered by some to be quite revealing for a woman of her role and age. The inaugural gown of 1981 was one of the most iconic Galanos designs that Nancy Reagan wore, but their partnership had begun years before and continued for years afterward. She and the designer were symbiotic. His gowns helped define her style; her style helped define his career.

Her wardrobe outside of the formal events was carefully selected, too. “These clothes were perfect for her lifestyle, and she knew exactly what she was doing,” commented Galanos in 2007.

Galanos creations were fantastically costly. He worked not in New York like most designers, but in Los Angeles, where he curated a select group of clients that topped the rosters of both Hollywood and politics. Naturally, his premier client belonged to both worlds.

Born to a Greek family in New Jersey, Galanos grew up sketching. He started at the Traphagen School of Fashion after high school, but dropped out to learn on the job. He then moved out to Hollywood as a sketch artist, spent time in Paris as an apprentice designer, and finally settled in Los Angeles creating collections of his own. These days, he is retired, and with his designing days behind him, he is a photographer. By using the same fabrics and textures as he did in his clothing designs, he creates abstract images that have been featured in several shows.

As a woman of the fashion world, Nancy Reagan is remembered for her strong attention to style and classic adherence to looking pulled together. She achieved this reputation with the help of Galanos, but she was also a strict curator of her own wardrobe.



Nancy Reagan

Givhan, Robin. “The quiet defiance behind Nancy Reagan’s high-glamour fashion.” The Washington Post. Last modified March 7, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Kalter, Suzy. “If Nancy Reagan Makes It to the White House, So Will Designer James Galanos.” People Magazine. Last modified June 2, 1980. Accessed July 26, 2016.,,20076639,00.html

Percha, Julie. “Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94.” ABC News. Last modified March 6, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Ward, Kat. “A Look Back at the Best Style of Nancy Reagan.” New York Magazine: The Cut. Last modified March 6, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

By Kerry Ulm


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