The rich history of First Ladies in the fashion magazine

Hillary Clinton, Jill Biden and Michelle Obama gracing the cover of US Vogue – Courtesy of Conde Nast

After a four-year hiatus, a US First Lady is back on the cover of American Vogue. Dr Jill Biden appears on the cover of the style bible’s August issue, looking at ease on a White House balcony.

She wears a blouson-sleeve dark floral dress by Oscar de la Renta, no doubt selected for its resonance with the dress she wore for her first appearance as a future first lady. The de la Renta dress she chose for then President-Elect Biden’s victory speech in November 2020 was also floral, with cap sleeves and an asymmetric hemline.

That dress was seen as a symbol of her support for American-grown brands and immigrant success stories (the fashion house’s founder and namesake moved to New York from the Dominican Republic; its current designers are also both immigrants to the USA). It also offered the first hint of her potential power as a style leader: after Dr Biden appeared in the dress, it sold out.

Dr Biden’s cover turn is part of a longstanding tradition. Nearly every first lady over the last 100 years has appeared in Vogue, either with an inside profile or, more recently, a cover.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton - AP Photo/Vogue, Annie Leibovitz

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton – AP Photo/Vogue, Annie Leibovitz

The first first lady to ever feature on the cover was Hillary Clinton, in 1998. Apparently Clinton’s longtime friend Oscar de la Renta convinced Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour to feature the first lady – a show of support Clinton repaid by wearing a gown of his design. Clinton cancelled a second cover shoot, planned for November 2007, out of concern that, ‘she would appear too feminine.’ Despite the slight, which Wintour addressed in a subsequent editor’s letter, the magazine would go on to endorse Clinton for president.

During her eight years in the White House, Michelle Obama graced three covers. Later, Wintour said the decision to feature her so many times was easy, given how she “redefined” the role of first lady. “She was the best ambassador that this country could possibly have in many ways, obviously, way beyond fashion,” she said in 2019.

michelle obama - Courtesy of Vogue / Conde Nast

michelle obama – Courtesy of Vogue / Conde Nast

Before 1998, first ladies received inside features, starting with Lou Henry Hoover in 1929. Their Vogue shoots amplified aspects of each first lady’s style and personality that became their defining characteristics. In her May 1981 shoot, Nancy Reagan is all glamour, wearing a one-shouldered beaded white evening gown with opera gloves in a formal dining room.

Jacqueline Kennedy, meanwhile, didn’t have to wait until she became First Lady to be featured in the pages of Vogue – she won an essay competition and was photographed for the August 1951 issue, aged 22 and already wearing her signature strands of pearls.

First Lady Pat Nixon posed in the same heavily beaded mimosa silk-satin gown by Harvey Berin that she wore to the 1969 inaugural ball, making the most of a significant dress. Laura Bush looks relaxed and all-American in a crisp navy blue shirtdress, reclining on a mustard-yellow sofa; her mother-in-law Barbara Bush struck a more relatable note, hugging one of her beloved dogs.

Jill Biden on the August 2021 Vogue cover - Annie Leibovitz

Jill Biden on the August 2021 Vogue cover – Annie Leibovitz

There is one exception to the first-ladies-in-Vogue rule: Dr Biden’s predecessor. In her four years as first lady, Melania Trump never received an invitation to appear on the cover of Vogue – an invitation that apparently she coveted. In a recording of a July 2018 phone call obtained by NBC News in October last year, the First Lady could be heard expressing surprise that Wintour “gave” the September 2018 cover to Beyoncé, rather than to Trump.

“Anna [Wintour] gave the September issue of Vogue cover – complete, complete, complete, everything – to Beyoncé,” she allegedly said in former friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s covert recording.

Trump then went on to predict that she would never receive a similar invitation. “They would never do it,” she said.

Of course Trump had her Vogue cover moment years before she moved into the White House – she appeared on the February 2005 cover in her wedding gown, a version of the finale look from John Galliano’s autumn-winter 2004 Christian Dior haute couture collection.

The cover line read, “Donald Trump’s new bride: the ring, the dress, the wedding, the jet, the party”, and inside, the magazine’s then Fashion News Director Sally Singer chronicled the shopping trip on which Melania Knauss chose The Dress. (It required more than 90 metres of material and 1,500 crystals and pearls, and took over 550 hours to create. And cost upwards of £80,000.)

Dr Biden’s cover, combined with Vice President Kamala Harris’s February 2021 cover, makes Wintour’s decision not to offer Melania Trump a cover turn look increasingly like a snub. But then, there was never any requirement that she should feature Trump. As she explained in her April 2019 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the selection of cover stars is entirely at the editor’s discretion. “Obviously these are women that we feel are icons and inspiring to women from a global perspective,” she said.

Women like Dr Biden, it seems.

Of course the cover is not just a cover – the August issue of Vogue also includes a warm to effusive 6,000-word interview and more photos from Annie Leibovitz’s shoot at the White House. In them, we see President and Dr Biden enjoying a quiet moment on a terrace outside the Oval Office (she’s wearing a fern-green jumper and skirt outfit by Michael Kors).

Dr Jill Biden in Vogue - Annie Leibovitz

Dr Jill Biden in Vogue – Annie Leibovitz

And then there’s Dr Biden in work mode: glasses on, pencil in teeth, leaning over a laptop keyboard in a Ralph Lauren blouse and skirt. That image offers a visual reminder that Dr Biden is a first lady who kept her day job as an educator (“Teaching isn’t just what I do; it is who I am,” she’s said).

The profile focuses on Dr Biden’s commitment to education, her relationship with President Biden (he misses their “romantic time” at Delaware B&Bs) and even her thoughts on Melania Trump’s alterations to the White House Rose Garden (“I think she made it better”). It touches only briefly, and only at the very end, on Dr Biden’s thoughtful approach toward her fashion choices, and her focus on American designers and emerging brands.

“I think that’s important: You try to lift up other people,” she said. “I like to choose from a diverse group of designers. When I was planning my Inauguration outfits, that’s one of the things I considered.”

All the way to the cover of Vogue.

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