NEW YORK — Aside from his movie star looks and cowboy swagger, Ronald Reagan knew how to make an impression with his stylish wife Nancy by his side, according to designers and friends.
Reagan’s death Saturday at the age of 93 stirred up some memories among the fashion crowd of the late president and his wife of 52 years. Whether carving a Thanksgiving turkey at a friend’s kitchen table or riding horses in the U.S. Calvary with Oleg Cassini in the early Forties, the former president took on his roles with gusto.
From the late president’s down-to-earth demeanor and the former first lady’s affinity for designer frocks, style was an important part of their one-two punch. After the low-key years of Gerald Ford and the more homespun charm of the Carter White House, Washington —and the country — were looking for a more flamboyant administration, and the Reagans didn’t disappoint from their first day. During the inaugural festivities in 1981, WWD reported how the ever-schedule-conscious Nancy Reagan regularly pulled up her husband’s suit sleeve to check the time on his watch.
Hurrying him out the door to another event, she offered her plan for dealing with East Coast winters — “just bundling up.” Her husband, however, had been more cautious, confiding he was wearing thermal underwear.
Despite that sign of practicality, under Reagan the Eighties were known as the era of “conspicuous consumption,” a flaunting of wealth epitomized by the first lady’s tastes in fashion. The 40th president’s brand of economics became known as Reaganomics and was also marked by controversial deep cuts in federal social programs, a bolstering of military spending, an increase in the deficit and a first-term recession.
In a boost to importers, Reagan pressed for the 1983 Caribbean Basin Initiative and its subsequent expansion, which included apparel duty breaks and led to Central America and the Caribbean becoming garment-exporting centers.
Despite that, American designers remained true to the first couple, Nancy Reagan regularly invited designers to the White House and the Reagans exhibited a style second only to that of the Kennedys. State dinners became a regular, lavish occurrence after being low-key affairs under Carter, while Reagan was rarely seen without a jacket and tie while in Washington — in contrast to Carter, who often favored jogging clothes.
Oscar de la Renta credited Nancy Reagan, who attended the CFDA awards on two occasions, including once to pick up an award, for doing “a lot for American fashion and strongly believing in our industry.”
During the Reagan administration, she often wore clothes from de la Renta, Bill Blass, James Galanos and Adolfo. “She certainly could fit into all my samples, so there were many samples going back and forth,” de la Renta said.
De la Renta said he was trying to postpone a trip to Europe to attend the funeral on Friday. Federal government offices will shut down Friday in memory of the late president.
Having visited the Reagan White House on many occasions, the designer said their gatherings were always “lively and very interesting,” with a healthy mix of Washingtonians, dignitaries, Hollywood types and Park Avenue society. They were the kind of events where Brooke Astor might be chatting with Gregory Peck or one of the acting Douglases.
More indelible was what Ronald Reagan told his wife, after meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. De la Renta recalled speaking with Nancy Reagan after the first meeting between the two world powers in Finland. The designer said, “I said to Mrs. Reagan, ‘That must have been such a difficult trip.’” She said to me, ‘The president told me he looked into Gorbachev’s eyes and he felt that he could trust him.’”
“That’s what he was all about. He was a man who believed in people,” de la Renta said. “He knew that was the best value of what America was all about.’
Longtime Reagan friend Pat Buckley, who plans to attend Friday’s funeral, said she has been in touch with Nancy Reagan via e-mail. “Now is not the time for chitchat,” Buckley said. She also said the former first lady plans to return to California right after the service.
But Buckley recalled happier times, including the Thanksgiving the Reagans spent with the Buckleys. The staff had been given the day off, but the president “happily carved away and sat at the kitchen table telling endless stories,” Buckley said.
Another time the Buckleys welcomed the Reagans for a weekend at their home in Connecticut. “The President and I went for a walk on the beach. I took him the back way for no good reason. On that path, there is a plot with numerous headstones, which are my dogs,” Buckley said. “He looked at me and said, ‘That’s interesting. I thought they were all Chris’ [her son’s] ex-governesses.’”
Years before many Americans ever heard of Reagan, he and Cassini served in the U.S. Calvary in Fort Reilly, Kan. Reached on Monday, Cassini described the future politician as “a very visible and important fellow,” as well as someone who was “always very immaculate.”
When their paths crossed again at Hollywood parties, Reagan always talked about Fort Reilly, Cassini said.
“He was always the same — that was his charm,” Cassini said. “He was terribly open. You always had the feeling he was the straightest guy in the world.”
Arnold Scaasi never dressed the first lady but attended a few state dinners during the Eighties. “They were a great couple. They helped each other in every way possible. They were a wonderful example to watch,” he said.
At a dinner at the White House in the early Eighties, Mary McFadden was smitten with Reagan and was not afraid to speak her mind. On Monday, McFadden said, “I thought he was the most extraordinary person I’d ever seen and I told him so. He was so tall and extraordinary.” His reaction? “He laughed,” McFadden said. “I’m sure he heard that many times.”
McFadden gave Nancy Reagan a few of her jeweled jackets at the suggestion of a Reagan adviser, the late Jerry Zipkin. She was always impressed with Reagan’s style.
“That was classic and is never going to happen again,” McFadden said. “We have a new set of images that are not so theatrical nor so classical.”
— With contributions from Alison Burwell and Marshall Heyman, New York and Joanna Ramey, Washington