The family visited me for a change this 4th of July weekend. DC is an essential destination for the festivities, and if only to see it just once. And if only just to see the fireworks over the Potomac, which would have been more awesome this year if the cops didn’t run everyone off the Key Bridge, one of the best places to see not only the fireworks over the National Mall (that’s the big one), but also most of the other, smaller displays around the District that launch around the same time.
Way to have some heart during the holiday, DC!
But that was only a small part of the family’s visit. DC has a lot to offer, whether you’re in the mood to stroll around museums or doing something else. And, if anyone tells you there’s nothing to do around here, they’re a big dumb asshole.
Tom is easy to figure out what to do with (art museums, forever!). Grandma and Matt, on the other hand, aren’t quite so fond of spending infinite hours doing the same, although they don’t mind a jaunt to a museum or two for the day. Grandma is easy to please with political history; my brother with science and nature (which makes us sound like categories of Trivial Pursuit).
And so, our first stop was the American History Museum. It had recently re-opened after what seemed like several years of rethinking the collection. The new version is less like the Pop Culture Museum it once seemed. McD’s wrote a blog post last year about being underwhelmed by the First Ladies exhibit. (Supposedly it’s due for another expansion later this year). It’s basically a First Ladies Fashion Show. Outside of a handful of non-clothing items like a musical instrument or a book, you don’t get much of a sense of the role of the wives of the U.S. Presidents. The opposite is true of the exhibit Presidents themselves, which is probably five times the size (in room and collection size). The First Ladies exhibit is really designed instead to give you a sense of clothes out of those periods, and the size of the women who wore them.
Mimi Eisenhower donated a lot to the collection. I can only guess that she was shaped like a bird because her clothes were made for a heavy woman, but her shoes were remarkably tiny. There were even a pair made by Neiman Marcus. Nancy Reagan was remarkably tiny and even in her late 60s, she was wearing clothes made for women that were at least 10 years younger. Single-strap gowns and things like that. Though, that’s not to say that they weren’t beautiful dresses, nor that Mrs. Reagan wasn’t a lovely looking woman. Grandma said that of all the First Ladies, Mrs. Reagan had the best sense of dress. TKO: Jackie O!
Unlike Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush’s inaugural gown was a blue dress with a wide neckline and big, boxy shoulders. She must have towered over Nancy Regan at all those functions where they were forced to mingle together. As these were the actual dresses worn by the President’s wives, she was (and maybe still is) built like a professional woman’s rugby player (tougher than male pro-football players!). At any age, I believe that woman could knock me and anyone else my size dead in a fight. She’d just crouch and charge like a bear and then it’d be Goodnight Irene!
McD’s blog includes a picture of the flat, shapeless, gold-colored polyester coat worn by Lady Bird Johnson. Not flattering on any woman, it looked more like the cut of a wintery nightgown. As McD explains, Johnson’s wife donated this particular item on the basis that it would age well. Granted, she wasn’t the Nostradamus of fashion. But, that’s an honest mistake. However, the lady next to me at the exhibit was so appalled by this boxy coat unfairly criticized Lady Bird for having no fashion sense whatsoever. If only the display included a picture of the dress underneath, she would have seen that it wasn’t all bad news.
Johnson’s, Nixon’s, Ford’s and Carter’s wives all looked vaguely similar. They wore the similar hairstyles and had those vaguely All-American faces. Betty Ford, who passed away at age 93 this week, seemed to break the trend with a sort of stylish, 1970s Nashville. She was a tiny woman with huge, multi-toned hair, and her contribution to the collection was a jade-colored brocade dress with long sleeves and a partial collar that had a narrow, low cut V-neck in the front. Sort of like, just a hint of seduction in a sexed-up decade, but still appropriate for a First Lady.
It’ll be interesting to see how people remember Michelle Obama in years to come. She’s one of the most elegant of first ladies (and also one of the youngest), but not as memorable a presence as we may think of someone like Jackie Onassis, the national poster girl for First Lady elegance. In fact, Mrs. Obama may be as muted a presence as Joe Biden, the Bland Anne of the American Vice Presidency. Which is a shame, given what it means for the First Lady to also be the first black First Lady.
Grandma took an interest in the reprints of partial sketches for many of the dresses on display, remarking that the materials and cuts of the post-hoop skirt dresses could just as well be something you’d find around today, with some minor modifications. In fact, this was Grandma’s assessment about most things we’d seen at the American History Museum that day. That, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they’ve remained the same. Most poignant of this were things we’d found in the photo archives – poverty and workers demanding the right to unionize in an exhibit called 1939. And, in the exhibit on the U.S. Presidency, a reprint of the front page of a newspaper illustrating a dramatic increase in FDR’s approval ratings after the country went to war. Hell, we just repeated that one less than a decade ago!
I only vaguely remember the previous version of the First Ladies exhibit. As McD mentions in her blog, the women donated numerous collectibles like dinnerware and campaign swag (only a small number are included in the new exhibit), though maybe they’ll be part of the exhibit once more after the expansion planned for later this year. By itself, it’s interesting to see the changes in women’s fashion over the years, but given that the subject is the First Lady, there should be more than just the clothes they donned for the Inaugural Ball. Hell, Eleanor Roosevelt alone could be an exhibit unto herself.