First ladies have achieved so much more than cutting ribbons and a stylish figure, but it is their personal style that continues to fascinate America. Their clothes and hairdos are picked over in detail and we know them by their wardrobes -- Jaqueline Kennedy the elegant thoroughbred, Nancy Reagan the runaway clothes horse, Hillary Clinton the walking fashion disaster. Mrs. Clinton last month made the lead two pages in the "worst" half of People magazine's annual best and worst dressed issue.
It is the ladies of the video age who have suffered the harshest scrutiny; the first ladies of the past are treated more gently.
A chance to see inaugural gowns of 18 of America's most famous first ladies presents itself tomorrow through Oct. 16 at Security Square Mall.
Vicky Valentine, history buff and actress, has reproduced the gowns based on her own research and the originals, housed at the Smithsonian Institution.
"My favorite is Edith Wilson's. The Wilsons did not have an inaugural in 1917 and the dress I show was worn to the presidential reception," she says. "It's black velvet with sheer cape sleeves and an eight-foot train.
"I'm amazed at how outspoken exhibit visitors are about their likes and dislikes," she says. "In Rosalynn Carter's case, the word I hear most is 'tacky.' It's said she made the dress herself, but some women think that's a beautiful thing."
Nancy Reagan's asymmetric gown with one bare shoulder draws the most criticism. "Women are appalled that a woman her age would dare to be so bare," she says. "I hear many comments about flabby arms."
Ms. Valentine played Martha Washington, Mary Todd Lincoln and Dolley Madison at the Henry Ford Theater in Dearborn, Mich., years ago, and in doing background reading became fascinated with the part first ladies played in history. That led to a wider interest and she decided to reproduce the gowns and take them and their stories on the road.
Mrs. Madison, who started the tradition of the inaugural ball, "wore the French Empire style of the time, a sheer marquisette top without anything underneath. She may even have rouged her nipples as was the custom at the time," says Ms. Valentine, "but she did not dance. She was a Quaker."
The First Ladies Gown Exhibit also has creations worn by Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs. Kennedy, Florence Harding and Varina Howell Davis, the only first lady of the Confederacy.
Commentary by Ms. Valentine is scheduled for 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. both Sundays. Call (410) 265-6000 for more details.