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, launching in June 2022 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’ exhibition will cover over 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. This digital exhibition features a mix of archival photographs, press clippings, portraits, and high resolution images that will allow virtual visitors to zoom in and examine these designers’ intricate craftsmanship—such as the 2,000 rhinestones hand sewn into Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural gown.