When the First Lady of the United States wears particular clothing, it is considered a major achievement for the selected designer or fashion label. We recognize names like Michael Kors, Oscar De La Renta, and Oleg Cassini. However, many of the talented women who designed for first ladies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are unknown today, but their timeless pieces still inspire awe and interest. Glamour and Innovation: The Women Behind the Seams of Fashion at the White House looks at the storied careers of eight women; the independent and lesser-known designers, seamstresses, and groundbreaking couturiers who influenced a century of fashion in at the White House.
Glamour and Innovation engages roughly 100 years of fashion history and these designers' roles as practitioners of style to the first lady. The eight fashion designers featured in this exhibit – Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, Sally Milgrim, Nettie Rosenstein, Ann Lowe, Ethel Frankau, Karen Stark, Mary Matise, and Frankie Welch – achieved professional success while representing different backgrounds, career trajectories, and style of work, yet their talents and creativity shaped American fashion and the iconic appearances of many first ladies.
The Women Behind the Seams of Fashion at the White House
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, born enslaved, went on to become a successful seamstress for wealthy society patrons, leading her to eventually befriend and design for First Lady Mary Lincoln.
Sally Milgrim was a successful designer in the early twentieth century known for her detail-oriented embroidery and ruffles, designing for Hollywood stars and even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Nettie Rosenstein was known for her tailoring skills and iconic "little black dress," going on to design two inaugural gowns for First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.
Ann Lowe specialized in eveningwear, debutant gowns, and day dresses for the social elite, including Jacqueline Kennedy's iconic wedding dress.
Ethel Frankau of the Bergdorf Goodman custom salon was known to integrate French culture into her American designs, including her design of Jacqueline Kennedy's inaugural gown.
Karen Stark was the lead designer under the fashion house of Harvey Berin, whose designs balanced feminine silhouettes with simple, clean lines, like the inaugural ball gown she designed for First Lady Pat Nixon.
Mary Matise designed a wide range of clothes, from basic daily-wear and suits for women to dramatic evening wear, including an Inauguration gown for Rosalynn Carter.
Frankie Welch designed "across the aisle" for several first ladies, known for her "Americana" style, which integrated American culture and history into her designs.
This exhibit is a part of the White House Historical Association’s partnership with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development to sponsor an intern to research and curate a digital exhibit focused on White House fashion. Maegan Jenkins, an MA/MS dual degree student in Costume Studies and Library and Information Sciences, curated this exhibit as the inaugural Digital Exhibits Intern.
This exhibition would not have been possible without generous support from Joseph Thomas, Michell Randall-English and the Jenkins Family, the Thomas Family, Tonya Blazio-Licorish, Dr. Rachel Lifter and my cohort in the NYU Costume Studies department. Thank you to Leslie Calderone, Alexandra Lane, and Caitlin Sanders of the Digital Library team for your generosity and guidance. I am forever indebted to the White House Historical Association for entrusting me with the honor of telling the stories of these trailblazing women and their impact on White House fashion and American history. To those that have taken the time to engage with this exhibit: thank you. I hope you have found this exhibition enticing, inspiring. I hope you have found something here that speaks to you.