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Deja Vu

January 9, 2013

Best Dressed


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2012: The Smithsonian Museum of American History has long been home to a collection of gowns worn by first ladies to inaugural balls, but a Washington Post story about the creators of those memorable dresses wonders if being chosen to design for the wives of American presidents might not be a career-maker after all:

“Designing the inaugural gown doesn’t guarantee anything but exposure,” says New York retail and brand consultant Robert Burke. “It doesn’t guarantee success.” At least not the household-name, big-brand, big-money kind.

For the past 20 years, the designers of the Smithsonian-destined inaugural gowns—only first-term dresses receive that honor—have been little-known men and one woman who had yet to be tested on the national stage. In the aftermath of the hoopla, they were dealt some bruising blows. Hillary Rodham Clinton turned to Sarah Phillips, a 37-year-old New York designer whose company was then only about three years old. After creating Clinton’s violet mousseline gown, Phillips went out of business. Laura Bush relied on her loyal Dallas-based dressmaker Michael Faircloth for her inaugural gown. Afterward, with the attention of the entire fashion industry on him, Faircloth crafted a ready-to-wear collection for the New York runway. But fate had different plans, and he never made it to the big city.

1888: Frances Folsom Cleveland, the twenty-one-year-old bride of president Grover Cleveland threw the national society press into turmoil when she appeared at inaugural events in dresses without bustles, a startling move for any stylish woman of the Victorian era. A Chicago Tribune story wondered what impact Mrs. Cleveland's sartorial adventures might have on the shopping public:

Just at present the pro-bustle women appear to have the best of it. The bustle is not to go. That is not for many a day. Mrs. Cleveland may toss her bustle into the attic of the White House if she likes, but Chicago women, Democrats as well as Republicans, will cling to the pannier.

“We are not alarmed,” said a Chicago dressmaker upon hearing about Mrs. Cleveland's inaugural costume. “Let me tell you something. The cloaks and wraps for the fall and winter trade for all Christendom are now made or are in the factories. They are made for bustles. Therefore, bustles will remain, though all the first ladies and Queens were to declare otherwise.
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The brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over we realize this: that the human has been roughly handled, but that it has advanced.
Victor Hugo, 1862
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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