During the presidential terms of George Washington and John Adams, the dress protocol of the White House followed the British Court dress code, but included some modifications to add an American flair. In later years, however, Thomas Jefferson balked at many of the stricter dress protocols of the White House, and, during his inaugural address, he chose to demonstrate his beliefs by walking in ordinary clothes, in lieu of taking the customary carriage ride, to arrive at the unfinished Capitol. Thomas Jefferson's administration called for casual dress attire. One major controversy over the dress code during his administration involved the arrival of British Prime Minister Merry at the White House who was dressed in full dress attire, but was greeted by Jefferson who wore only breeches, a shirt, stockings, and slippers down at the heels. Merry commented that it was an insult to his sovereign and his country. In later years, controversy over proper dress attire of White House personnel lingered after Minister Merry's despondent departure.
Over the years, the White House dress code became even less informal and more modern as times and clothing styles changed. The Clinton administration's dress code was considered very informal compared to previous presidents. During the George W. Bush administration, the dress code of the White House went back to the traditional formal styling of past years. Women would wear knee-length skirts with stockings in the West Wing, and only men and boys could wear pants. Bush made it a point to state to one of the aides that clothing attire, "was to treat the office with respect". This was in contrast to rumors of the Clinton administration accepting relaxed attire during casual parts of the day. It was alleged that clothes such as blue jeans, tie-dye shirts, t-shirts, and jogging shorts were seen throughout the halls in the normal course of the day during the Clinton administration. However, a former press secretary of the Clinton administration dispelled these rumors by stating that staffers wore suits and business attire during the week, but casual attire only on the weekends.
Certain White House events may require a specific type of dress attire. One such event is the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This event is a red-carpet affair and dress attire is formal. Men are expected to wear black tie. Women who are invited to this star-studded event are advised to dress as follows:
- A floor-length gown is recommended. Some celebrities have worn short, flirty, revealing dresses in the past that have caused bad publicity.
- Women are encouraged to cover the top part of their body in order to not show too much cleavage.
- It is advised to wear comfortable shoes because of a security screening and long lines. Pack some ballet shoes in a purse, or have a car waiting to keep from walking several blocks in high heels before and after the affair.
The dress protocols of the first lady have also undergone their own evolution. Throughout history, the clothing styles of the first lady illustrated her personal flair and, most importantly, the official style of the Presidential administration.The styling of the first lady is first shown and duly noted at the inauguration ball. Her style is often represented at many functions, including inauguration balls, state dinners, public appearances, and everyday life in the White House. Popular designers are used to design the inauguration gown, the state dinner gown, dress for other elaborate affairs, and journeys to other countries. The fashion of the first lady is usually prominent and more noticeable in the first term of the presidency of her husband. This is because the first lady is usually busy with completing her campaigns and accomplishing reforms to aid the country during her husband's second term.
Controversy over the dress styles of the first ladies has always been about how much "skin" should be shown. From low-cut ball gowns to sleeveless dresses, the issue of showing "skin" started with Dolley Madison in her low-cut dresses that showed the top part of her bosom and also showed off her shoulders. Years later, when Frances Cleveland wore a gown without sleeves that showed off her shoulders, the Women's Christian Temperance Union started a petition for her to cover up her skin because they believed her style of dress was setting a bad moral example for young girls. As time progressed, many first ladies, like Mamie Eisenhower and Nancy Reagan, followed Madison and Cleveland's styles. Mamie Eisenhower and Nancy Reagan were known to wear sleeveless dresses or shoulder-less gowns. This trend has continued throughout history with first ladies wearing trendy, designer clothing or wearing sleeveless or shoulder-less apparel.
To view historical images of previous first ladies' dresses and accessories, visit the site https://americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/first-ladies-fashions, opens a new window.
Chocano, Carina. Decoding the White House Dress Code.
National First Ladies' Library. Articles about First Ladies & Fashion.
Poplin, Carson. Fashion History Lesson: The Evolution and Importance of the First's Lady's Style.
Styleauteur. Fashion Whip: What to Wear to the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
Wilson, Gayle. Dressing Down for the Presidency: Thomas Jefferson Republican Simplicity.