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.”
The 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.
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by Kerry Ulm