Tim Gunn sizes up First Lady fashion do’s and don’ts

By , on October 1, 2014


Tim Gunn "makes it work" at the 13th annual spring picnic in New York (lev radin / Shutterstock)
Tim Gunn “makes it work” at the 13th annual spring picnic in New York (lev radin / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama went under Tim Gunn’s fashion microscope and got an approving nod, but not all first ladies fared as well – Hillary Rodham Clinton among them.

Gunn and a panel of fashion experts reviewed the fashion sense of the nation’s first ladies at a National Archives forum Tuesday, and found plenty of do’s and don’ts.

Gunn rated Mrs. Obama’s style sense as “divine.” Jacqueline Kennedy he deemed a “style-setter.” But he wondered why Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, felt compelled to play amateur seamstress and remake her dresses over and over.

As a designer, Wilson “would have been the first one out on `Project Runway,'” the fashion consultant and TV personality joked.

“She was having difficulty making it work,” Gunn said, in a play on his trademark admonition to “make it work.”

As for possible future administrations, Gunn said Clinton has been looking “very presidential lately. There’s definitely an evolution that’s been taking place. The bar has been raised.”

Other panelists said it had taken Clinton some time to warm up to the idea that a first lady’s style reflects on her husband’s administration.

“I just feel like it’s not important to her,” designer Tracy Reese said. “Public service is very important, but her appearance is down on the list.”

Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said Clinton’s signature style from her days as first lady was “the famous pantsuit and the hair problems.”

Looking further back in history to the 1800s, Steele noted that in the days of Sarah Polk, wife to James Polk, women wanted to show off a tiny waist, hands and feet, but have “plump, voluptuous shoulders and a big, big butt.”

“That sounds like Nicki Minaj, JLo and Kim K.,” Reese declared. She eyed a picture of an ivory brocade dress of Polk’s with a flouncy bottom and wondered aloud, “Can you imagine Kim Kardashian in that?”

Gunn sniffed, “I’d prefer not to.”

The forum was held at the National Archives, which has “signature” items worn by Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Obama on display as part of its exhibit, “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures.”

Among the items on display: the black and red Narciso Rodriguez dress worn by Mrs. Obama on the night of the 2008 election in Chicago and a pillbox hat worn by Mrs. Kennedy.

The forum was presented in partnership with the White House Historical Association.