By  on March 22, 2005

NEW YORK — Hillary Rodham Clinton said nothing prepares anyone to be first lady.

“You know you don’t get a training manual. You don’t get any guidance whatsoever,” said Clinton, speaking about her former role at a luncheon Monday that kicked off two exhibitions about the wives of presidents at the New-York Historical Society. As for the public’s fascination with a first lady’s style, it continues to stupefy her.

“People will overlook policies about war and peace to argue about the first lady’s hairdo and clothes,” she said.

The senator recalled telling Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis over lunch at her Fifth Avenue apartment in 1992 how she was getting unsolicited advice about her clothing and hairstyle.

“I told her, ‘I have to confess that is not something I have been very confident about. Some friends say I should turn myself over to these image people and see what comes out.’”

“She told me, ‘You have to be you. You can’t be anyone else.’”

Downstairs at “First Ladies of New York and the Nation,” an exhibition devoted to Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, even Clinton couldn’t resist the lure of a little glamour. Upon entering the exhibition and admiring a Carolina Herrera gown worn by Kennedy in the Eighties, she said, “Oh wow, that’s great. That’s wonderful. She was so amazing.”

But during her luncheon remarks, the senator said she was more impressed with the substance featured in an adjunct exhibition, “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image,” which is on loan from the Smithsonian and on display at the Historical Society through June 4.

Contrary to some public speculation, the former first lady said she had nothing to do with the Smithsonian’s 1992 decision to make its first ladies’ exhibition more about substance than inaugural gowns. She said she was happy to provide its first pantsuit — much like the black one she wore Monday with a salmon-colored blouse.

On display, a Clinton pantsuit looked mannish compared with another outfit nearby, a silk brocade dress and jacket that Oleg Cassini designed for Kennedy in 1961. But Clinton made no bones about her no-nonsense attire, as evidenced by her quote that frames her display: “Sixty-two counties, 16 months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits later, because of you we are here.”The exhibition doesn’t skate over other steadfast women who helped steer their husbands into the Oval Office. Consider Abigail Adams, who was nicknamed “Mrs. President”; Edith Wilson, who decoded messages for her husband; Sarah Polk, who was her husband’s confidante and adviser, and Florence Harding, who famously quipped, “Well Warren, I have got you the presidency. What are you going to do with it?” 

As eye-catching as many of the outfits and personal belongings are — where else might one see Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1957 pistol permit or a Nancy Reagan-inspired “Just Say No’’ board game — the printed matter is often the most telling.  Jackie Kennedy’s Chapin School report cards — on loan from her family — hinted at her independent spirit. Referring to her social attitude, one teacher wrote in 1935, “She is very capable. She does not always work well with the group as she likes to have her own way.”  

Placards describe how George Washington purchased a serving set from the French minister to the U.S., and how Abigail Adams hung clothes to dry inside the White House. Another explained how Lou Hoover raised eyebrows when she sent the White House laundry to be done at a residential school for young black women in Washington. But that gesture kept the school financially solvent during the Depression.

Betty Ford is quoted as saying, “I do not believe that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views. Being ladylike does not require silence.”

The Smithsonian exhibition also touches upon the precariousness first ladies face for being too well dressed. Calvin Coolidge reportedly would only abandon his frugal ways for his wife’s wardrobe. One area highlighted how Reagan, who wasn’t afraid to march out the designer labels, made light of her regal image. “I’d never wear a crown,” she said straight-faced in a speech. “It would mess up my hair.”

On another occasion, she said, “It isn’t often that one is lucky enough to enjoy a second beginning, but during that five-minute period in the spring of 1982, I was able to make a fresh start with the Washington press corps.”Reagan was far from the first to clash with the press. During her remarks, Clinton recalled that Kennedy advised her “to stay away from the press as much as possible.” A placard near a copy of a diamond necklace worn by Edith Roosevelt informed visitors that she detested “photography fiends.”

And Mary Todd Lincoln lamented being in the public eye. Near a case with her red paisley shawl, which surprisingly looks like something shoppers would find today in Ann Taylor, a sign quotes her as saying, “I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear.”

But a little glamour carried a lot of weight in the White House. A sign near Frances Cleveland’s silk evening gown with black satin trim and a fur-lined hem informed passers-by how its former owner polished up Grover Cleveland’s image by marrying him. Once the glamorous 21-year-old wed him in the White House, the public forgot about his being accused of having a child out of wedlock.

Lisa Kathleen Graddy, co-curator of “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image,” chalked up America’s interest partially to “you can envision yourself a first lady in a way you can’t imagine yourself royalty or a celebrity. Royals are born royal and celebrities make a conscious decision to be famous. These are women who don’t necessarily try to be famous. They have to balance their political lives with their families and own beliefs — maybe with some, little or no practice. That’s something a lot of Americans can relate to.”

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