First Lady Fashion: Part IV, Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush

When Barbara Bush took to the presidential campaign trail with her husband George H. W. Bush, her poof of white hair and witty personality earned her the nickname “First Grandmother.” When she wore her blue Scaasi gown to the inaugural ball in 1989, the designer deemed her “the most glamorous grandmother in the United States.”

1994-561-1-webThe gown’s long, puffed sleeves taper toward the wrists, and its royal blue skirt is asymmetrically draped below the dark blue top and gathered at a bow on the side. Scaasi sold a handful of dresses like it and, upon Mrs. Bush’s decision to wear one herself to the ball, he covertly called up the other owners to make sure none of them wore theirs there, too. Then, he discontinued it.

Over the years, the other gowns of this design either disappeared or were kept in private collections. Nowadays, there are only two available for public display. One, the gown originally worn by Barbara Bush, is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. The other, this one, a gown first owned by New York socialite Brooke Astor, belongs to Ohio State’s Historic Costume & Textiles Collection. They differ only in size (this is 6, the other a 20) and accessibility. When the George Bush Presidential Library wanted a loan of Barbara’s inaugural gown, instead of borrowing the original from the Smithsonian, they called up the Costume Collection and had Brooke Astor’s Scaasi gown shipped to Texas in a specially built crate.

Barbara Bush wore several Scaasi gowns during the inaugural festivities. As the designer himself put it at the time, “clothes are not by any means her main priority, but I think she likes getting dressed up.” Barbara Bush was a pulled-together First Lady, but, unlike her predecessor, Nancy Reagan, not an overly fashion-conscious one.

Nevertheless, Bush and Scaasi remained a team throughout Barbara’s time in the White House. He claimed to have avoided promoting business with Hillary Clinton out of loyalty to the Bush family, and Barbara was guest of honor at the opening of a Scaasi exhibition in New York in 1996, an extravagant gathering where all attending ladies wore their own Scaasi gowns from over the years.

Canadian-born Arnold Scaasi (“Isaacs” spelled backwards) studied in Montreal, Paris, and New York before setting off on his own as a designer in 1964. He preferred to work for celebrities and individual clients, choosing not to create collections for mass-market consumers. Like Mollie Parnis and James Galanos, Scaasi acquired a circle of loyal clients. His set included six First Ladies, among them, Jackie Kennedy and Mamie Eisenhower, as well as famous movie stars of the day.

Catering to Hollywood, he was certainly theatrical; one of his best-known looks was a shockingly revealing suit that Barbra Streisand wore to the Oscars in 1969. He favored bold details paired with classic silhouettes and regularly designed for both life and the screen. Aside from his designs, Scaasi also gained attention for his clever and biting comments that playfully insulted clients and Americans in general.

The “First Grandmother” may not be known as a fashion icon, but she has certainly been a fixture in the White House. She served as the Second Lady (wife of the vice president) for eight years during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, First Lady for four years when her husband George H. W. Bush was president, and mother of the president for eight years when President George W. Bush was in office in the early 2000s. In fact, the White House was one of the homes where the Bush family lived the longest. They moved twenty-nine times in forty-four years to accommodate George H.W.’s business and political career.

She and George had been together for the majority of their lives when he was elected president. Barbara was born in 1925 and met George at a dance when she was 16. They were engaged within a couple of years and married in 1945. After serving as a pilot in WWII, George attended Yale. Together they had six children, including one, Robin, who died as a child from Leukemia. From the loss of Robin, the pair developed a new, stronger sense of empathy.

Barbara Bush and Brooke Astor both shared this empathy through philanthropy. As Second and First Lady, Barbara championed literacy, and she continues to do so through the Barbara Bush Foundation. Brooke Astor, the American socialite who died in 2007, aged 105, made a career of donating money. She inherited an enormous fortune from her third husband, Vincent Astor, heir of the famous Astor Family. By transferring the family’s Gilded Age wealth into the modern era, she transformed the role of the “old money,” ultra rich in American society. In her husband’s honor, she created the Vincent Astor Foundation and used it to give away close to $195 million. Her primary focus was improving the welfare of New York City. By day she travelled across the city, visiting the organizations she supported, and by night she attended lavish parties wearing gowns such as this.

This gown, donated to the collection in 1994, was worn to several international parties. She wore it to both the British Embassy and the French Embassy and across the pond she toted it to Hatfield House in England, which was home to several members of royalty and built in 1611. Although this gown specifically was never owned by a First Lady, never fear; Brooke Astor also wore it to the White House.


The designers, owners, and donors of these gowns each have had their own impact on American history, and between the politics behind them and the style of design they represent, the gowns themselves are a melding of worlds. Art meets government. Influence meets aesthetics. The same can be said for the First Ladies who wore them. Although they are not elected, First Ladies are fixtures in American politics. But instead of policymakers, they are era-definers. The causes they champion and the clothing they wear mark the culture of the country during their time in the White House.


Barbara Bush

“Arnold Scaasi dies at 85; designer to first ladies and movie stars.” Los Angeles Times. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Berger, Marilyn. “Brooke Astor, 105, First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies.” The New York Times: Obituaries. Last modified August 13, 2007. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Black, Allida. “Barbara Pierce Bush.” The White House. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Feitelberg, Rosemary and Lorna Koski. “Arnold Scaasi, American Designer and Confidant to First Ladies, Dies at 85.” Women’s Wear Daily. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“The First Ladies at the Smithsonian: Barbara Bush: First Grandmother.” Smithsonian: The National Museum of American History. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Jacobs, Alexandra. “Arnold Scaasi Dies at 85; Dressed Stars and Socialites, His ‘Scaasi Girls.’” The New York Times: N.Y./Region. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

 Morris, Bob. “Scaasi, Scaasi, Everywhere.” The New York Times: Style. Last modified October 6, 1996. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Schiro, Anne-Marie. “The 41st President: Fashion; Following a Tough Act With Impeccable Taste.” The New York Times: U.S. Last modified January 21, 1989. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Steinmetz, Katy. “Belles of the Ball: An Insider’s Look at Inaugural Gowns: Barbara Bush, 1989: A Close Call.” Time: Fashion & Beauty. Last modified January 18, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Yaeger, Lynn. “Remembering Arnold Scaasi, Legendary Fashion Designer to the First Ladies, Barbra Streisand, and Liz Taylor.” Vogue. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

by Kerry Ulm

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


First Lady Fashion: Part II, Lady Bird Johnson

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.

ladybird-web “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.

Black, Allida. “Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson.” The White House. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Folkart, Burt A. “Mollie Parnis; Dress Designer for the Famous.” Los Angeles Times. Last modified July 20, 1992. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“Obituary: Lady Bird Johnson.” BBC News. Last modified July 12, 2007. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“Portrait of a First Lady: Lady Bird Johnson, The Early Years, December 1912 – November 1934.” PBS. Accessed July 26, 2016.

By Kerry Ulm

First Lady Fashion: Part I, Florence Harding

First Ladies and the Gowns They Wore

by Kerry Ulm

In the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection’s (HCTC) storage rooms in Campbell Hall, all garments are cared for equally. Some more fragile pieces are set apart and laid in drawers, but most are hung beside each other, lined up according to decade.

Peek into the drawers and the sections for the 1920s, 1960s, and the 1980s, however, and you’ll find four gowns in particular. One is covered in heavy beads, another with cream-colored flowers. A third is marked by vertical stripes, and a fourth has a fabulous blue skirt.

Four different designers created these dresses. They were worn by different women, and given to the collection by different donors. Yet, they all have something in common. Each has a connection to a former First Lady of the United States.

Over the years, the office of the First Lady has been developed and changed by the women who have occupied it. Just as their politician husbands have had to keep an eye on their own appearance and mannerisms for the sake of swaying voters, so, too, the First Ladies have become known for the clothes that they wore. For some, fashion was personally important, for others, not as much, but in all cases, what they wore reflected the era in which they lived in the White House. Interpreting these eras were the designers behind their most notable gowns and outfits. Together, First Ladies and the designers they grew close to, created iconic views of history through fashion.


Florence Hardingflorence_kling_harding-01

The oldest of these First Lady gowns belonged to Florence Harding and dates from 1922 or 1923. It is more frail than the others and weighed down by heavy beading. When it is not being displayed, the gown is stored horizontally, resting on a long, wide sling of fabric inside of a drawer. Unlike the other gowns, the designer of this one is unknown. Mrs Harding was in the White House before the significance of the designer/First Lady relationship came about.

What it lacks in designer identification, the Harding dress makes up for with weathered personality. Little clues from its long life point to its wearers’ activities. Several dark, red-brown stains—the sort that could have came from dribbles at a White House dinner—stand out on the front against the green-blue fabric. They’re camouflaged by the dark beading, which, at several points, has replacement beads that flare in brighter colors.

Florence came to the White House in 1921 when her husband, Warren G. Harding, took office after Woodrow Wilson. After a post-WWI recession, the Harding presidency began to see the upsurge of the Roaring Twenties. As First Lady, Florence reopened the White House to the public, regularly hosting garden parties for veterans and poker parties in the library (complete with illegal liquor!) This gown was likely worn to these events. But, her stay in the White House was short. President Harding died in office in August of 1923 and Florence passed away just over a year later in November of 1924.

However short their time together in the White House, its doubtful Harding would have made it there at all given today’s climate of extremely close scrutiny of presidential candidates and their, as well as their family’s, personal lives. Florence and Warren each had their own less-than-spotless reputations back in their native Marion, Ohio.

When she was 19, Florence quit school at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after one year to elope with her first husband, Henry DeWolfe. They separated soon after but had a son together, Eugene, who was raised by his grandfather.

At the start of her second marriage, Florence was again gossip fodder. When she and Warren married quite legally and respectably in 1891, the masses of Marion were whispering about how the bride was shockingly five years older than the groom.

The groom himself went on to create his own drama. Warren is known to have had at least two extramarital affairs, one with Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend, and the other with Nan Britton, the daughter of a friend. In recent years, DNA testing has proven that Harding fathered Nan’s daughter.

Given these factors, it’s no surprise that the Hardings weren’t known to be a particularly affectionate couple. What they lacked in tenderness, though, the pair made up for in teamwork.

Florence was a fierce force behind her husband’s success. She began developing this strength by first looking after herself. After her failed marriage to DeWolfe, Florence supported herself financially by using the skills she learned during her time at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to teach piano lessons to Marion residents. Warren had acquired many leadership positions in Marion on his own, and with Florence he was even more successful. Armed with both a strong will and a shrewd business aptitude, Florence oversaw the local newspaper he owned, The Daily Star. Eventually she exercised these talents on a national scale, helping push him along to the White House.

Florence only owned this gown for a year or two before she passed away. It then entered an unknown route of ownership. Likely it was handed around for several decades before eventually coming into the possession of its only other known owner, Madge Cooper Guthery, another famed resident of Marion.

Born in 1910, fifty years after Florence Harding, Madge Cooper Guthery may not have held the national fame that Florence did, but she did hold her own on the local scale. Guthery was an esteemed radio host who, by the time she passed away at 99-years-old in 2009, had come to be known as “the First Lady of Radio.”

She attended Ohio State, graduating with degrees in English and Biology. Her true passion was writing, and while in school, she filled her elective slots with writing courses. After teaching for several years, she took a job in 1941 at a local radio station. At the time, Guthery had become interested in the position because she saw it as an opportunity to learn more about writing. It ended up being the start of a fifty-year career in Marion radio.

As a radio host, she was one of few women in the medium. Throughout her life, she remained passionate about education and in her later years, she both learned and supported learning. She continued her own education hands-on as a world-traveler, and she supported the education of others through various philanthropic means, including supporting her alma mater, The Ohio State University.


Florence Harding

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“Warren G. Harding (1865 – 1923).” The Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Accessed July 26, 2016.