"First Lady" was a term Jacqueline Kennedy disliked, or so daughter Caroline once recalled, because it sounded so like a racehorse. Mrs. Kennedy, as she preferred to be called, had a point: The president's official hostess — be it wife, niece, daughter or in-law — has long been trotted out to add a positive spark to an administration.
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Sometimes it worked. Dolley Madison was the ultimate political hostess and diplomat who literally created the role of first lady as we think of it now. If Kennedy was the nation's artistic muse, Eleanor Roosevelt acted as its conscience. Barbara Bush called herself "everybody's grandmother."
And sometimes it didn't work. Mary Todd Lincoln's many critics thought she got it all wrong all the time. Edith Wilson was accused of overstepping when her husband suffered a stroke. Nancy Reagan, famously, received some pricey china during a recession. And Hillary Rodham Clinton was clobbered in a fight over health care reform.
Yet what seems to matter most to Americans is one question: What does the first lady wear?
"The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection," a slim but lavishly illustrated paperbound book, attempts to juggle that national obsession with dress and the weightier elements of a first lady's role, in both her husband's administration and the larger society. It's a challenge.
Authors Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of the Smithsonian First Ladies Collection, and Amy Pastan, a writer and former staff editor at the Smithsonian, do their best to weave together photographs and illustrations telling each lady's story and the major events of each president's administration. The necessary brevity — and political tact, no doubt — makes for some interesting condensations of history.
"President Clinton's second term in the White House was marred by controversy, but Hillary continued to work on domestic policy issues," is one of the more vivid examples of this, especially as that second term witnessed the Monica Lewinsky scandal and an impeachment trial.
The book begins with Michelle Obama and works back to Martha Washington. It's an interesting and to-the-moment way of arranging information but seems counterintuitive. Why not start at the beginning and show how the role of first lady developed with time? After all, there's no statutory power or position to being first lady; as noted in the book, the first official use of the term was believed to have been by President Zachary Taylor in an 1849 eulogy for Madison. And every first lady after Washington had to grapple with what had been done or not done before.
Still, it's the dresses, in the end, that make this book, just as the clothes have made the Smithsonian exhibit a must-see for more than a century. There's something about gazing at these gowns, captured in all their glory in full-color studio photographs, that's almost hypnotic. Even though they're displayed on headless mannequins, you can still "sense" the wearer's presence years — even decades — later. There's no mistaking the angular discipline of Reagan in her one-shouldered beaded James Galanos gown, the public discomfort of a very unwilling first lady, Bess Truman, in a silver lamé and gray satin gown, or the charm and youth of 22-year-old Frances Cleveland, whose White House wedding gown is on display.
Changing tastes in fashion — or perhaps seeing old things in a fresh light — can lead to surprises. The stylishly beaded pink gown on the book's cover belonged not to the elegant Kennedy but her more populist predecessor, Mamie Eisenhower. Rosalynn Carter's inaugural gown, derided at the time for being recycled from Jimmy Carter's gubernatorial years, catches the eye now for its mix of pattern and elaborately embroidered gold trim. Roosevelt's gown for her husband's 1933 inaugural celebration — with its detachable sleeves — is quietly elegant, not at all what you expect from a first lady who famously toured coal mines.
"The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection" is a colorful start to learning more about America's first ladies. Use it as a spur to delve deeper into women's roles in politics and society, not just then but now. And ask, as Smithsonian guides apparently do of visitors: "What would you do with the job if it were yours?"
Bill Daley is a food and features writer for the Chicago Tribune.
"The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection"
By Lisa Kathleen Graddy and Amy Pastan, Smithsonian, 104 pages, $12.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun