The fashions of a First Lady have intrigued Americans for decades. From Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, each FLOTUS has her own unique sense of style that, in a way, solidifies their legacy.
On Saturday, November 7, Joe Biden became the 46th President-Elect when he reached over 270 electoral votes to defeat incumbent President Donald Trump. During the former Vice President’s victory speech from Wilmington, Delaware, he praised the future of his other half, Dr. Jill Biden, and formally set her up for the notoriety that lies ahead.
“As I said many times before, I’m Jill’s husband,” Biden said. “Jill’s a mom—a military mom—and an educator. She has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does—it’s who she is.”
For the big night, Dr. Biden made her first appearance as the future FLOTUS wearing an asymmetrical, draped floral embroidered wool-blend crepe midi-dress by Oscar de la Renta. She accessorized the sold-out designer frock with a black face mask and dark pink bow pumps.
Choosing the iconic label was likely no random act of good taste. Over his six-decade career, Oscar de la Renta had a long history of dressing a number of First Ladies and helping bring a bit of glamour to government.
“Fashion is nonpolitical and nonpartisan,” the designer once famously said.
As far back as Jackie Kennedy, the Dominican-born designer made his mark on the White House. In the early 1960s, de la Renta created a custom peach dress for John F. Kennedy’s wife for an official visit to India. This kicked off a steady tradition of Oscar De la Renta designs being worn by America’s most beloved women at high-profile events from state dinners to inaugural parades. Nearly every First Lady since Jackie O has worn de la Renta and many maintained personal relationships with the designer until his passing in 2014.
Nancy Reagan famously wore de la Renta’s designs throughout her stint as First Lady and the two were longtime friends. Favoring frocks in her signature “Reagan Red,” her most famous Oscar de la Renta moment included a long lace puff sleeve and v-neck bodice gown she wore at the 1988 president’s dinner where her husband Ronald Reagan endorsed George H. W. Bush’s candidacy for president. Another was the elegant satin evening gown she wore to a state dinner in 1987.
Even after moving out of the White House, Reagan and the designer remain close confidants. She attended Saks Fifth Avenue’s Oscar de la Renta Fall 2007 Collection presentation in Beverly Hills and in 2011, the designer escorted her as the guest of honor to a The Colleagues Luncheon benefiting Children’s Institute, Inc. The Colleagues Luncheon is the original ladies-who-lunch benefit and the fashion house often staged a show for its members.
“America has lost a brilliant, enduring talent and a true gentleman,” Reagan said in statement following de la Renta’s death. “Oscar was a fashion legend but he was also my friend for nearly 50 years.”
Although she was never really revered for her fashion, First Lady Hillary Clinton also struck up a tight relationship with the designer.
“Hillary Clinton was more difficult,” he cheekily told the New York Times in a 2002 interview. “Remember, she was coming from Arkansas. Mrs. Reagan was a movie star, and she knew how to dress, but Mrs. Clinton [is] very prudish. She has lovely shoulders and a very nice décolleté. Before I die, I’m going to get her in a strapless dress.”
Although Clinton never did bare her shoulders, she did wear one of his gold, floor-length embroidered gowns to her husband President Bill Clinton’s 1997 inaugural ball and accepted her Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for her book “It Takes A Village” in a lace and satin Oscar de la Renta ensemble that same year. Clinton also historically donned a velvet Oscar de la Renta dress when she appeared as the first First Lady on the cover of Vogue in 1998.
After leaving the White House, Clinton continued to wear the designer regularly. She wore a dark teal gown with voluminous sleeves to the 2002 Council of Fashion Designers of America gala, a leopard print gown at former South African President Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday celebration in Johannesburg, a cobalt blue coat at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and to her daughter Chelsea’s 2010 wedding.
At the 2013 CFDA Awards, in a sweet act of friendship, Clinton presented the organization’s highest honor, its Founder’s Award. On an even more personal level, de la Renta invited Clinton and her family on vacations in the Dominican Republican time after time and later became a supporter of her own presidential aspirations
“His singular talent and exquisite taste elevated American fashion, and his warmth and friendship will be missed by our family and all whose lives he touched in his extraordinary journey,” said the Clinton family in a statement following his death.
Laura Bush also considered de la Renta a close friend and confidante. As her go-to designer, President George Bush’s wife famously wore a winter white coat at the 2005 inaugural parade, a silver sparkly long sleeve evening number to the Stars and Stripes Ball and a similar shaded gown with matching encrusted bolero at a state banquet at the White House in May 2007.
The designer’s work was so influential on the Bush family that they launched the “Oscar de la Renta: Five Decades of Style” retrospective at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
In a statement after the designer’s death, Bush said, “My daughters and I have many fond memories of visits with Oscar, who designed our favorite clothes, including Jenna’s wedding dress. We will always remember him as the man who made women look and feel beautiful.”
While becoming a modern style icon, Michelle Obama made her own rules when it came to FLOTUS fashion. Favoring more contemporary brands like J. Crew, Michael Kors, Jason Wu and ASOS, the first Black First Lady didn’t wear Oscar de la Renta until seven years into her tenure at the White House. Whether intentional or not, the snub wasn’t lost on the designer. He particularly seemed miffed when she chose to wear an Alexander McQueen gown for a state dinner in 2015 for Chinese president Hu Jintao.
“My understanding,” de la Renta told WWD, “is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade — American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why do you wear European clothes?”
He noted that Obama remained a major fashion get, with the power to boost a house’s business. “I’m not talking about my clothes, my business. I’m old, and I don’t need it. But there are a lot of young people, very talented people here who do,” he said.
But like the historic women before her, Obama did eventually parade a number of Oscar de la Renta gowns. She wore her first ensemble, a navy embroidered frock, to a cocktail party after her White House Fashion Education Workshop just weeks before the designer’s death. In 2016, alongside husband President Barack Obama, she wore a two-tone purple lace dress that cut below the knee while attending a lunch to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday at Windsor Palace. She also wore a show-stopping blue-and-black Oscar de la Renta gown to the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday evening.
The current First Lady, former model Melania Trump, never really embraced the designer, with the exception of wearing a green dress alongside Queen Rania of Jordan in April 2017. Ironically, it was her step-daughter Ivanka Trump who regularly wore the designer throughout her father’s presidency.
But now with Dr. Biden set to move into the White House, it’s clear that despite the designer’s passing, the label’s current creative directors, designers Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim, will be keeping the tradition of the First Lady in Oscar de la Renta alive.
Long live the (unofficial) First Designer Of The United States.