HISTORY LESSONS: Who designed former First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s inaugural gown in 1977?
The fact that this question would stump even the sharpest of history buffs is indirectly the impetus for an unexpected new tie-up. In an effort to call attention to some unsung or little-known designers and seamstresses who worked with former first ladies, the White House Historical Association has formed an academic partnership with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
This semester the association is sponsoring an internship to help raise the profile of the work of NYU Costume Studies grad student Maegan Jenkins. Through a collaboration with the WHHA’s David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History and its digital library team, she is piecing together a digital exhibition, “Glamour and Innovation: The Women Behind the Seams of Fashion at the White House.”
Archival photos, portraits and press clippings will be used to help tell the stories of eight independent female designers, seamstresses and couturiers. Spanning more than 100 years, the virtual show will start with Elizabeth Keckley, who had been born enslaved and became a successful seamstress, working closely with Mary Todd Lincoln. In the spring and summer of 1861 alone, Keckley made 15 dresses for Lincoln. By 1865, Keckley employed 25 seamstresses.
Keckley was one of the first African-American women to publish a book — a memoir in 1868. Last year Keckley was among the 100 female designers who were featured in the “Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion” exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum.
The union is meant to show how institutions can leverage their strengths to create innovative artistic projects and enlighten the public with new insights, according to Nancy Deihl, chair of the department of art and art professionals at NYU Steinhardt. The internship project is in step with the association’s 2022 focus, “White House Tastemakers and Trendsetters,” which is geared toward exploring the fashion, cuisine, social traditions and individuals who lived, visited or worked in the White House and influenced American culture.
As for Carter’s aforementioned inaugural gown choice, Mary Matise designed that. Matise’s personal story will be highlighted in the upcoming show. Carter was an early supporter of sustainable fashion choices. She had previously worn the gold-embroidered sleeveless coat over a gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown to her husband Jimmy’s gubernatorial inaugural ball in 1971. Rosalynn Carter spruced up her look with an After Five handbag for the presidential inaugural festivities in 1977.