Brow Beat

Why the First White House Fashion Show Was Also the Last

Lady Bird Johnson, third from left, hosted the first and last White House fashion show.

Still from public domain newsreel footage via YouTube

The news that Michelle Obama hosted a “fashion education workshop” at the White House this week in “acknowledgment of the growing value and profile of the fashion industry”—a profile she’s been instrumental in raising—drew predictable raves from those in the industry. Contrary to the New York Times’ claim, however, the event did not exactly go “where no first lady had gone before.” Indeed, one went even further, installing a runway in the White House for the first—and last—fashion show ever held there.

It was not the famously stylish Jackie Kennedy who brought Seventh Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue, but her matronly successor, Lady Bird Johnson. The February 1968 event was conceived as a joint boost to the fashion industry and Mrs. Johnson’s pet project, domestic tourism and conservation. While fashion and the National Parks Service may seem like strange bedfellows, both campaigns were born of the postwar impetus to portray America as not just equal to but better than Europe. Dubbed “How to Discover America in Style,” the lunchtime show entertained an audience of governors’ wives and a who’s-who of American fashion designers and journalists.

Twenty models walked a white-carpeted, 600-foot runway stretching the length of the State Dining Room as the U.S. Marine Band played in an adjoining foyer. Nancy White, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, narrated the half-hour presentation, which opened with a parade of red, white, and blue ensembles. (The menus and centerpieces were red, white, and blue, too.) Behind the runway, slides of American tourist destinations—the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, Mount Rushmore—flashed on a screen. The Times called the event “as patriotic as the Fourth of July, as wholesome as apple pie and as promotional as a TV commercial.”

The same could be said of this week’s workshop. Instead of Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass, and Norman Norell, the designers were a younger and more diverse crowd, including Jason Wu, Tracy Reese, Naeem Khan, Maria Cornejo, and Prabal Gurung. Instead of “chicken curry Columbus” and peppermint ice cream, the 150 fashion students in attendance feasted on chicken taquitos and red velvet cupcakes. Instead of Nancy White, they got Anna Wintour. And, of course, they got Michelle Obama.

In 1968, Mrs. Johnson posed for pictures on the White House lawn in a knee-length white wool dress whose designer she coyly refused to name, flanked by models decked in red, white, and blue; the awkward photo op only served to emphasize the contrast between the tall, miniskirted models and the frumpier First Lady. By contrast, Mrs. Obama attended the workshop in a sleeveless racer-back dress designed by a Fashion Institute of Technology student to show off her famously sculpted arms. Seventh Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue have never been more in sync.

“Nobody knows why exactly a fashion show has never been held at the White House before,” Pittsburg Press fashion editor Barbara Cloud mused in 1968. But the reason such an event has never been repeated seems more clear—and was inadvertently suggested back then by Mrs. Orville Freeman, wife of the secretary of agriculture, who remarked after the show: “It makes you itch to have more of a private life to wear these things. Girls in public life just have to be so careful about what we wear.”

Fashion and politics have always been a dangerous combination, particularly for women, who cannot retreat into the sober anonymity of a suit and tie. Politicians and their families tread a fine line: They must dress appropriately and buy American without seeming to spend taxpayers’ money frivolously. When a first lady patronizes a foreign designer, the fashion press treats it as high treason. In 2011, the Council of Fashion Designers of America actually issued a press release criticizing Mrs. Obama’s decision to wear an Alexander McQueen gown to a state dinner.

Another explanation is the persistent view that fashion is, in Wintour’s word, “unserious.” It took two years of lobbying by the fashion industry to convince Mrs. Johnson to host the 1968 fashion show; it finally happened at the worst possible time, midway through the Tet Offensive. An angrily scrawled letter to Mrs. Johnson preserved in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library reads: “Have you given up Highway beautification for Fashion Shows? How much longer do you all in The White House expect to insult our HARD Core Service men, Both in Vietnam and those poor suckers imprisoned in Korea?” Undoubtedly, Mrs. Obama will receive similar complaints, with Syria and Iraq in place of Vietnam and Korea.

As if already anticipating them, Mrs. Obama arrived armed with statistics on the fashion industry’s economic impact, and the workshop included sessions on entrepreneurship and wearable technology as well as draping and inspiration. In addition to fashion-editor favorites like Zac Posen, there were representatives from mass-market success stories J. Crew, the Gap, and Spanx. And the Times helpfully pointed out that the first lady hosted a similar event for the film community last year.

In 1968, apparel was America’s fourth-largest industry and could not be ignored. As it declined in the 1970s and ’80s, fashion’s political importance waned and it became a political liability. Nancy Reagan was sharply criticized for buying designer clothes, and equally castigated when she accepted designer clothes for free. Mrs. Obama is alternately hailed as an inspirational fashion icon and blasted as a spendthrift fashion victim. Hillary Clinton is both a potential president and a pants-suited punchline. And though Americans spent $350 billion on clothes and shoes last year, the vast majority of American clothing companies now manufacture their goods overseas, often in sweatshops. Last year’s factory collapse in Bangladesh galvanized many Americans to consider wearing made-in-the-U.S.A. clothing, only to discover how difficult (and expensive) that is. Perhaps, with Mrs. Obama’s encouragement, the fashion industry could be inspired to “discover America” again?