Behind the Seams

A collaboration with the White House Historical Association showcases seamstresses who altered the fabric of fashion with their iconic designs for the First Lady

Side-by-side photos of two former First Ladies. At left is a black-and-white photo of Jackie Kennedy in her wedding gown with a very long veil behind her that billows out all the way to the ground. She is standing outside in a field, holding a bouquet of flowers and facing her husband, John F Kennedy, who is wearing a tuxedo. At right is a photo of Rosalynn Carter on a red carpet with photographers in the background behind her. She is wearing a gold-embroidered sleeveless coat over a blue chiffon gown with gold trim.

Senator John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy at their wedding reception in 1953 (left). First Lady Rosalynn Carter wore this gold-embroidered sleeveless coat over a blue chiffon gown a total of three times, creating a mini press scandal (right).

The American public has long harbored a fascination with First Lady fashion. From Jackie Kennedy’s iconic ivory silk-taffeta wedding gown to Rosalynn Carter's scandalous rewearing of the same blue chiffon dress, the clothes of the White House’s leading ladies have a unique power to inspire trends, invite critique, and capture the nation’s attention.

Fashion is a highly influential cultural product that has helped shape public understanding of America’s power, legacy, and evolving attitudes for centuries—and in the White House, simple fashion statements can take on outsized political and cultural significance. The choice to wear American-made dresses during the Great Depression in the 1930s helped Lou Henry Hoover communicate the importance of supporting the cotton textile industry in an ailing economy. The bubblegum pink shade preferred by Mamie Doud Eisenhower became known as “Mamie pink” and was worn by many women in the ’50s and ’60s. And Jackie Kennedy ushered in a new era of style, with her timeless Chanel suits, oversized sunglasses, and pillbox hats inspiring countless imitators.

But with the focus placed squarely on the powerful women in the clothes, less is known about the groundbreaking designers, seamstresses, and couturiers who worked behind the scenes to shape centuries of fashion—and White House—history.

These designers are the focus of the digital exhibition Glamour and Innovation: The Women Behind the Seams of Fashion at the White House, which debuted as part of a new collaboration between NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the White House Historical Association. As the association’s inaugural digital exhibition intern, NYU Steinhardt Costume Studies graduate student Maegan Jenkins collaborated with the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History and its digital library team to highlight the storied careers of eight women who created some of history’s most iconic outfits.

The exhibition is part of the association’s focus for 2022 on “White House Tastemakers and Trendsetters,” which encompasses a closer look at the cuisine, fashion, social traditions, and individuals who lived, visited, or worked in the White House and inspired or influenced American culture.

Jenkins’s exhibition covers more than a hundred years in fashion history, beginning with Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker who was born enslaved, to the mysterious designer Mary Matise, who designed Rosalynn Carter’s 1977 inaugural ball gown. Featuring a mix of archival photographs, press clippings, portraits, and high-resolution images, the exhibition allows virtual visitors to zoom in and examine the designers’ intricate craftsmanship—such as the 2,000 rhinestones hand-sewn into Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural gown.

A photo of a long faded pink gown covered in rhinestones and hanging on a dress form.

Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural gown from 1953.

We spoke to Maegan Jenkins about the intersection of fashion and social justice, as well as the historically underrepresented women who defined White House fashion in the 19th and 20th centuries: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Mary Matise, Sally Milgrim (Eleanor Roosevelt), Nettie Rosenstein (Mamie Eisenhower), Ann Lowe (Jackie Kennedy), Ethel Frankau (Jackie Kennedy), Karen Stark (Pat Nixon), and Frankie Welch (Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford).

What drew you to White House fashion history?

I’m in a dual master’s program in costume studies and library sciences. Before this, I was the resident costume designer for Soft Cage Films in Chicago, a production company known for short social justice films. I’ve always had this feeling about clothes and costumes—you can learn so much about how someone feels about themselves and the world and their place in it, just from looking at their clothes.

I’ve had this idea in the back of my head for a while. I really love creating costumes, but I want to go a little bit deeper. I want to discuss the theories behind the clothes. I want to talk about why certain styles and designers are revolutionary, why they’re important, and how they change the narrative of fashion.

These days, we’re always watching what the First Lady is wearing to inaugurations, when she’s meeting the press, and when she’s on tour. The emphasis is always on the design house or the big name designer, but this wasn’t always the case. The eight designers I’m highlighting in the exhibition are all women that have been marginalized by society. Not all of them necessarily have marginalized identities, but their stories and their histories have been lost. They have had an incredible impact on public discourse surrounding America’s most influential cultural figures, but they’re not household names, nor are they recognizable by the broader public. A lot of them started out as dressmakers. It’s so important to bring their stories to light.

Why did you choose to focus on these women in particular?

I wanted to cover a broad range of fashion history. I started with Elizabeth Keckley, who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. She’s a really great starting point because her personal story is so interesting and rich. She was born enslaved, but she was so skilled at dressmaking that she was able to purchase freedom for both herself and her son. She navigated this complicated place of being Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, but also her confidante and friend. There are so many beautiful, handmade, hand-sewn garments made by Elizabeth Keckley. I came across a quilt, called the Keckley Quilt, made out of scraps from Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses. It’s one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition. The quilt is visually stunning, but it also touches on ideas about sustainability that are prevalent in the fashion industry today, albeit in a very different way.

A photo of an old quilt made up of multiple patterns and various colors, mostly beige with blue accents and red fringe around the edges.

A quilt said to be made by Elizabeth Keckley from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses.

The most recent designer that we’re including is Frankie Welch. She’s compelling because she was one of the first designers to design across the aisle, making dresses for First Ladies from both the Republican and Democratic parties, including Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. This trend is much more prevalent with design houses today. She also instilled the idea of American pride into her designs. She created custom, hand-painted scarves—some for the White House that feature prominent political designs—that became a chronicle of American life.

I was interested in these particular designers because I hadn’t heard a lot about them before and I’m someone who is interested in fashion history. I purposely stopped at Frankie Welch because afterward it starts to shift a little bit more to design houses or big name designers that people have greater awareness of.

What was your experience like working with the White House archives?

I’m a visual person so I jumped right into the image archives. The White House Historical Association has wonderful archives and they also have access to other important collections. 

A photo of a lemon-yellow chiffon gown with long sleeves hanging on a dress form. The gown has a sheer chiffon layer with polka dots over a solid dress with spaghetti straps. There is a satin bow around the waistline and ruffles at the neckline, hem, and sleeves.

Welch designed this yellow chiffon gown for Ford, which she wore for a state dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1974.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Smithsonian Archives, the National Archives, and some of the presidential libraries. I uncovered a wealth of beautiful photography from fashion periodicals and beautiful detailed images of dresses, shoes, and, like I mentioned, the quilt. It’s really important for me to include detailed images so the viewer can zoom in and get a good look at the surface design, including the hand-sewn stitches and intricate beading. 

For example, Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural gown was created by Nellie Rosenstein and it has something close to 2,000 rhinestones beaded in the fabric. It’s such a breathtaking gown. It's really important to be able to see the sheer amount of effort and handwork that goes into creating such a beautiful gown for a prominent woman.  

What have you discovered about fashion’s role in White House history and American culture?

I think it’s really important that we talk about the role of individual artisans that work in the White House. These women, from all different backgrounds and walks of life, had the opportunity to work with the White House, which is a position of extreme privilege. If that’s not the American dream, then what is?

I’m interested in the intersection of social justice, fashion, and the individual. People like Elizabeth Keckley and Ann Lowe are good examples of that. Ann Lowe was groundbreaking as one of the first Black couturiers. The ivory silk taffeta wedding dress she designed for Jackie Kennedy is one of the best-known wedding dresses of all time, although she wasn’t publicly credited with the design at the time. 

I like to examine the idea of women as makers and how design and fashion is the connective tissue for American visual culture. These designers are an example of that and offer a good opportunity to dig deeper into those themes. These women weren’t working with big design houses; they were sewing things by hand and had few resources. Even so, their labor and craft had a lasting impact.

Can you give an example of this impact?

Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown is very recognizable, as is her inaugural gown created by Ethel Frankau. It’s interesting because Jackie Kennedy is widely recognized as the most stylish First Lady; she had a huge influence on fashion. In fact, I have asked a few people “who is the most stylish First Lady,” and their immediate answer was “Jackie Kennedy.” She was one of the people that really broke out and made a name for herself and she was so iconic because of it. It’s almost as if the gowns or the garments that she was wearing took on a life of their own. American women adapted their own wardrobes to emulate her effortless style. Her look has had a lasting impact on American cultural memory, but the designers who created her look aren’t widely known. I hope that visitors to the exhibition will leave knowing these women’s names that have been lost to history.

—Sarah Binney

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Photos from top: courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (3); courtesy of Kent State University Museum via the White House Historical Association; courtesy of Ford Library Museum