Sure, living in the White House has its perks. But a clothing allowance is not one of them.
First ladies feel all sorts of pressure to project a fashionable look, and over the decades they have tried a range of cash-saving strategies to pull it off without going broke.
Seven frugal do’s and don’ts that first ladies have tried over the years:
1. Trot out retreads • Even first ladies recycle their clothes. Michelle Obama recently welcomed military moms to a Mother’s Day tea wearing the same shirtdress she had worn to lunch with Katy Perry in 2012. Lady Bird Johnson put her 1965 inaugural gala gown, a white peau de soie dress with a beaded bodice, back in the rotation three times over the next two years.
2. Buy off the rack • Laura Bush experienced the “ultimate in clothing faux pas” when she selected an $8,500 red lace Oscar de la Renta gown to wear to the Kennedy Center Honors in 2006 without modifying the design. “In the book, that red dress had looked perfect. It vaguely crossed my mind that someone else might see the dress and think exactly the same thing,” Bush wrote in her memoir, “but what were the odds of that woman wearing it to a White House party?” Pretty good, it turns out. Three other women turned up in the identical gown. They made the best of it by posing for a group photo at a White House reception. Then Bush ran upstairs and changed into a navy blue dress from the back of her closet before heading to the Kennedy Center.
3. Hunt for bargains • Betty Ford wasn’t afraid to economize. She shared clothes with her teenage daughter and used scarves to make the same outfit look different. When she read about low-cost designer Albert Capraro, whose dresses retailed for as little as $70, she asked the New Yorker to bring her some sketches. She ordered spring dresses from him and asked him to make some evening gowns using fabric that President Gerald Ford had brought back from Japan.
4. Find a benefactor • When Jacqueline Kennedy caught criticism for wearing pricey French fashions, her father-in-law stepped in to defuse the issue. Joseph Kennedy offered to pay her wardrobe bills if she used Oleg Cassini, a family friend, as her personal couturier. “Jacqueline Kennedy accepted this offer, a move that was greeted with some astonishment by Seventh Avenue, where Cassini was not regarded as a designer of the first rank and something of a vulgarian as well,” author Amanda Mackenzie Stuart wrote in a biography of Diana Vreeland.
5. Borrow stuff • Nancy Reagan raised eyebrows by borrowing high-priced designer gowns and jewelry as first lady, sometimes without returning them or reporting them on her husband’s annual disclosure forms. When it came out that Reagan had kept up the practice even after she had pledged to stop, her spokeswoman, Elaine Crispen, acknowledged that Reagan “broke her little promise.” Reagan said later: “I was just trying to help an industry that I could help and I was in the position to help. I didn’t see anything wrong with that.”
6. Raise some cash • Mary Todd Lincoln ran up $27,000 in bills for clothes and household items without her husband’s knowledge, roughly equivalent to $700,000 in modern times, and then badgered Republican politicians to pay up to “help me out of my embarrassment.” Some offered money or loans, but Lincoln still came up short, according to historian Carl Anthony at the National First Ladies’ Library. “At one point, she even considered selling the manure on the White House lawn as fertilizer to pay the bills,” Anthony wrote in his history of first ladies.
7. Try creative writing • Theodore Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, would wear the same dress to multiple events, Anthony says, but vary the descriptions in her press releases. In the days before video and 24/7 media coverage, that made it seem as if she had more clothes than she did.
Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.