Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Rosalynn Carter died at age 96 on Sunday. She was rarely considered a stylish or trendsetting first lady. She did not conform to the traditional White House dress-up game and often seemed to reject it.

However, this does not mean she did not understand the political use of clothes. She strategically used her image during her time in Washington, presenting an alternative approach to image-making that is still being used today.

After Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, Mrs. Carter declared that the one item she would take to the White House from Georgia was her sewing machine. This symbolized the administration’s focus on economy and accessibility. It also reflected her folksy roots as the daughter of a dressmaker. It set the tone for what followed, including a significant dressing scandal.

The dressing scandal took place during the 1977 inauguration, where the Carters made history by walking instead of riding during the inaugural parade. Mrs. Carter’s outfit looked notably modern and was a significant departure from tradition.

Instead of wearing a new gown to the inaugural balls, Mrs. Carter wore the same dress she had worn to her husband’s 1971 inauguration as governor of Georgia, sparking shock and horror. This established the precedent for Mrs. Carter’s fashion choices and values throughout her time in the White House.

She continued to break sartorial rules, becoming the first first lady to establish an office in the East Wing and to carry a briefcase to work every morning.

She paired her office accessory with more traditional shirtwaists, often in modest colors and styles that reflected the ethos of the Carter administration.

The Carters were replaced by the Reagans, known for their showmanship and opposite approach to executive office fashion. Mrs. Carter’s style became a cautionary tale in the political playbook.

Now, Mrs. Carter’s style as first lady looks unexpectedly relevant, with Jill Biden, the current first lady, also known for her folksiness and lack of interest in telegraphing her fashion choices.

In fact, she is celebrated for it, as the world no longer calls it wearing old clothes, but sustainability. And Rosalynn Carter did it first.

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