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Reagan Red, Queen Nancy, First Lady of The United States, devoted wife…Nancy Reagan was known for many things, but she will always be remembered as a fashion icon.
The wife of Republican president Ronald Reagan, Nancy built up a reputation in America as standby spouse, no matter the situation. She reigned as the First Lady of The United States during the tax cut heavy times of the 1980s, an era that her husband’s policies greatly influenced. Nancy made her mark as the head of “Just Say No,” a public advertising campaign that was associated with the “War On Drugs.” This association between the troubling slogan and her glamorous appearance plays a large part in what creates Nancy Reagan’s fashion legacy.
Before she paraded through the White House in glamorous gold lamé gowns, Nancy was a Hollywood actress. This was how she met her husband, then a cowboy actor. As Ronald began a career in politics, Nancy was building relationships with designers and creating her signature style. In 1949, she developed a friendship with designer James Galanos. “We’d sit in the back of the store, gossip a little bit and have a few laughs,” Galanos said to W Magazine in 2007. “She was always immaculate. She knew her style…”
Nancy first caught the eye of the press when her husband announced his run for governor of California in 1965. Standing beside him, Nancy was wearing what would become her signature hue, red.
When the Reagans entered the White House in 1981, Nancy made it her initiative to update the appearance of America’s First Lady. Some believe it was a deliberate response on the less glamorous fashions of Rosalind Carter, who came from a more frugal administration. Nancy’s first hit of attack was at her husband’s 1981 White House Inauguration, in which she wore two of her favorite designers.
Aldolfo Sardina created Nancy’s daytime outfit. It consisted of a matching dress and jacket set with a matching toque in a flaming Reagan red. For evening, it was a James Galanos off-the-shoulder column gown in white. Nancy accessorized the outfit in a pair of satin and rhinestone shoes that was created by David Evins, the shoe designer of Marilyn Monroe. Although all of these designs were created by Americans, the price tag was less Middle America and more Rodeo Drive.
During the presidency, Nancy continued her fashion focus. This was the 1980s, the era of grand fashions. Instead of taking a tacky “Dynasty” route, the First Lady paired loud prints and shapes with simple silhouettes. She liked long sleeves and tubular dresses for evening, and clean line separates for day. Her hair and makeup never strayed from her perfectly tousled coif and peach lipstick. “I don’t like a lot of frills and fusses,” she told W Magazine. “I’ve always gone for the more understated look.”
Another aspect of Nancy’s style was her choice of designers. Nancy favored those who dressed America’s high society, like Oscar de la Renta, Arnold Scaasi, Aldolfo Sardina, and of course, James Galanos. She loved to dress to the nines when attending parties and galas, whether it was at the White House or at a socialite’s soiree. This need for constant fashion put Nancy in hot water a number of times, especially in 1992 when Nancy was investigated by the IRS for receiving $3 million in unreported “gifts” of designer clothing and jewelry.
The lasting legacy of Nancy’s fashion has been remembered in a museum exhibition at the Reagan Library and countless articles. As of today, Nancy isn’t cited in fashion collections as a muse, which may be to due to her older age and political ties, or referenced in the youth-obsessed fashion editorials of today. Although not currently present, her glamorous 1980s style will always have it’s place fashion history.