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Please note that the following is a digitized version of a selected article from White House History Quarterly, Issue 52, originally released in print form in 2019. Single print copies of the full issue can be purchased online at Shop.WhiteHouseHistory.org No part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. All photographs contained in this journal unless otherwise noted are copyrighted by the White House Historical Association and may not be reproduced without permission. Requests for reprint permissions should be directed to rights@whha.org. Contact books@whha.org for more information. Š 2019 White House Historical Association. All rights reserved under international copyright conventions.

THE MAMIE LOOK The Americanness of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s Off-the-Rack Fashions


kr i st s t en a . h unt er


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other women from around the nation also wearing it. This dress, a blue and green printed silk taffeta shirtwaist with a full skirt from Mollie Parnis’s readyto-wear collection, known by its designer as “Model 448,” was bought off-therack by 162 other women for $90. The first lady’s dress, ordered directly from Parnis, one of her favorite designers, differed only in the large bow added at the neck.1 In contrast, five years later, as Jacqueline Kennedy prepared for her coming role of first lady, she stressed to her selected personal designer, Oleg Cassini, the importance of her clothing being one-of-a-kind. In a December 13, 1960, letter to Cassini, Mrs. Kennedy wrote, “Just make sure no one has exactly the same dress I do.”2 When Mrs. Eisenhower became first lady in 1953, she continued to dress as she had as a military wife—fashionably, yet sensibly. Always interested in fashion, but on a tight budget during most of her married life, she learned to seek out bargains and sales at department stores, relishing in successful purchases of high

O P P O S I T E : W H I T E H O U S E H I S T O R I C A L A S S O C I AT I O N / L E F T : G E T T Y I M A G E S

in march 1955 as First Lady Mamie Eisenhower cheerfully greeted guests flowing through the Chinese Room at the Mayflower Hotel, she noticed a woman across the room desperately clutching her mink cape, trying to conceal her outfit. When Mrs. Durries Crane neared, Mrs. Eisenhower realized that they were wearing matching dresses. Instead of being chagrined, however, the ever-vivacious and gracious first lady laughed off the coincidence without the slightest bit of disturbance, saying “Oh, you’ve got the same dress on. I just love it, don’t you?” Mrs. Crane, horrified at showing up to the reception in the same dress as the first lady and guest of honor, tried to apologize and remarked, “I hope I look one-third as nice in mine as you do in yours,” before retreating into another room for the duration of the reception, cape tightly wrapped around her. The next month, Life magazine printed a three-page article detailing the fashion “crisis” complete with photographs of both ladies in the dress and images of

Seen above watching a fashion show in 1954, Mamie Eisenhower (second from right) enjoyed fashionable clothing but often chose recognizable styles by ready-to-wear designers and, as reported by Life magazine (opposite), was delighted to be seen in the same dress worn by other women. In the previous spread, Mrs. Eisenhower poses in her glamorous inaugural ball gown, 1953.

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quality and pretty pieces for fractions of their original prices. As first lady, she did not change her shopping habits and continued to buy from the collections of her favorite American designers— Mollie Parnis, Sally Victor, and Nettie Rosenstein. While Mrs. Eisenhower epitomized the average American wife and mother with her recognizable and attainable clothing, she nonetheless stood out in her time as a fashion icon. Mamie Eisenhower’s affinity for fashionable clothing remained constant during her life. Throughout her childhood and debutante years, her family’s abundant wealth kept her attired in the latest fashions. Photographs from her teenage years show her interest in looking her best and cultivating a pretty, feminine image. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of fashionable clothes. Mamie Doud’s lively and

vibrant spirit—qualities for which she would later become well known—are also evident in these early photographs. After her marriage at age 19 to Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a second lieutenant with a small salary, she soon learned to live on a tight budget, stretching each dollar and seeking out the best bargains and sales. Throughout the early years of their marriage, when money was scarce, Mrs. Eisenhower prided herself on continuing to live well but within the couple’s means. In the early 1930s, with the added financial pressures of the Great Depression, she gleefully wrote to her parents of successful Washington shopping trips in which she purchased a black satin hat, originally $13.50, for $3.00, and a brown lace evening dress from Garfinkel’s Department Store, originally $60.00, for $14.50. Her beautiful clothing meant even more to


Mamie Eisenhower’s feminine and fashionable style sense is captured in photographs taken well before she became first lady. Above from left to right: As a teenager, c. 1915; in her wedding dress, 1916; as a young military wife in Paris, 1928; and during a second stay in Paris, 1951.

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her when she could show off her savvy money-management skills by getting high-quality pieces on large discounts.3 The Eisenhowers lived in Paris twice before their White House years—from 1928 to 1929 and then again from 1950 to 1952, when Eisenhower was the supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. During both periods of Parisian residency, Mrs. Eisenhower, ever the fashion enthusiast, resisted the high fashion world integral to the city’s culture. She found the couture shops and their saleswomen snobbish and the price of gowns unnecessarily high. The French press—wholly enamored in the 1950s with the flourishing rebirth and seeming dominance of French fashion from the postwar “New Look”—criticized her preference for American clothes, finding her favored American designers inferior to the

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great Parisian couture houses of Dior, Givenchy, and Fath. Disliking the pretense of high fashion and the contests for “best dressed,” Mamie Eisenhower commented, “Imagine paying $800 or $900 for a dress! I’m perfectly happy with those little $17.95 numbers I order from New York newspaper ads.”4 This is not to say, however, that she completely avoided the popular couture houses; she did make a few select purchases of gowns and dresses. Susan Eisenhower later observed that her grandmother “knew all too well the importance of both saving your pennies and spending them.”5 Even as she was thrust into the public spotlight during the 1952 presidential campaign and in the White House years that followed, Mamie Eisenhower did not reform her ideas on fashion or her wardrobe. Choosing to still dress in pieces by her favorite American

designers—day dresses by Mollie Parnis and Elizabeth Arden, and hats by Sally Victor—the first lady endeared herself to the American public with her average, everyday woman image. Because she shopped just as suburban housewives did, going to department stores, ordering from advertisements and catalogs, and wearing recognizable styles by ready-to-wear designers, American women could see themselves in the first lady. During the postwar era, with its pressures to conform and unite under a singular cohesive view of “Americanness,” American women could take pleasure in thinking of the first lady as their typical neighbor.6 The “Mamie Look,” as it was often called, perfectly encompassed middle-class mainstream fashion during the 1950s. This style followed the forms of the popular “New Look” but with an

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American and personalized flair. Mamie Eisenhower’s usual daywear consisted of a one-piece full-skirted shirtwaist dress with a fitted waist or a suit with a full-skirt in a fabric with a reflective or slightly iridescent surface, such as silk taffeta, in bright colors and patterns. Besides the full skirt and fitted waist, the other important aspect to the Mamie Look was the array of accessories. Every outfit was complemented with matching shoes, gloves, purse, hat, and a full set of jewelry, including double or triple strands of pearls with matching earrings, a brooch, lapel pin or corsage, and, of course, a mink stole or full-length mink coat. No Mamie ensemble was complete, however, without her signature charm bracelet displaying twenty-one charms, each representing a different stage in Eisenhower’s career. She began wearing the sentimental bracelet prior to the White House years as an outward symbol of her pride in her husband’s achievements. Her well-known attachment to her bracelet set a trend during the 1950s for biographical charm bracelets. The multifaceted characteristic of the Mamie Look, while reflecting her personal tastes, also mirrored the consumerist vision of the decade. With each piece of her ensemble from a different designer or store, the first lady was presenting herself as a good consumer and, in turn, as a patriotic American woman. In this way, Mamie Eisenhower helped revive interest in retail shopping.7 Just as Mrs. Eisenhower helped to reinforce the popularity of the readyto-wear, full-skirted “American Look,” she launched an enduring enthusiasm for pink with her 1953 inaugural gown. Created by renowned New York designer Nettie Rosenstein for Neiman Marcus, the soft pink peau de soie ball gown dazzled the American public upon its much-anticipated reveal at the inaugural ball. The gown was Rosenstein’s design, but Mrs. Eisenhower specified the color, its wide, full skirt, and the

2,000 hand-sewn rhinestones scattered across the bodice and skirt. The rhinestones, the new first lady famously remarked, added “a little extra flair.”8 After the inauguration, details and images of the gown flooded magazines and newspapers, and soon “Mamie Pink” was a popular choice not only for clothing but also for home decor, including, most notably, bathroom tile. This glamorous gown proved so popular that it was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution in 1955, breaking with precedent that a first lady’s gown should be displayed only after the completion of her husband’s administration.9 Mamie Eisenhower’s popular and fashionable style landed her on the New York Institute’s list of the twelve best-dressed women each year she was first lady.10 This public recognition

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As first lady Mamie Eisenhower often wore full-skirted dresses fully accessorized with matching shoes, purse, hat, jewelry, and a mink stole. The look, which came to be known as the Mamie Look, is seen opposite as she boards Air Force One with President Eisenhower c. 1957, and right in 1954, while visiting a drug store in the Pentagon with the Queen Mother.


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The Mamie Look

Mrs. Eisenhower chose seven hats from the collections of designer Sally Victor (above) in 1956. For a 1952 campaign breakfast of doughnuts and coffee (left) in Harlem, Mrs. Eisenhower dressed in her signature look of dress, hat, gloves, fur, purse, lapel pin, charm bracelet, and matching pearl necklace and earrings.


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A L L P H O T O G R A P H S T H I S PA G E : G E T T Y I M A G E S

For a 1956 campaign picnic (above), Mrs. Eisenhower chose a toile dress picturing the White House and wore matching necklace and earrings. In the 1952 portrait at left, the first lady wears a matching set of jewelry, an integral aspect of her signature look.

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C L O C K W I S E F R O M L E F T : E I S E N H O W E R P R E S I D E N T I A L L I B R A R Y, G E T T Y I M A G E S , A L M A Y

Waiting to greet the visiting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in June 1954, Mrs. Eisenhower is seen in a simple day dress with fitted waist and full skirt.

For a formal photograph in the Diplomatic Reception Room (above), Mrs.Eisenhower paired a brightly colored shirtwaist dress with pearls. She added a large corsage, a hat, and gloves to the look in 1952 at the Republican National Convention (right).

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A Signature Charm Bracelet


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Mamie Eisenhower was often photographed wearing her special charm bracelet, which held a collection of unique symbols of milestone events during her marriage. The bracelet is seen on her wrist as she pins on a corsage (above) ahead of her husband’s first first inaugural in 1953 1953. and as she Among the waves charms(opposite) seen during the 1956 Republican on the bracelet are a heart National inscribed Convention. with the date she Among charms met herthe husband inseen Sanhere are a heart inscribed with Antonio, a symbol of the the dateon sheD-Day, met herand husband victory a in San Antonio, symbol of key to the White a House. the victory on D-Day, and a key to the White House.

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Mamie Eisenhower’s glamorous rhinestone-embellished 1953 inaugural ball gown (opposite), designed by Nettie Rosenstein to the first lady’s specifications, featured the famous “Mamie Pink”—a color now synomous with 1950s home decor.

and the frequency with which she set trends during her tenure as first lady solidifies her status as a fashion icon during the 1950s. During an era when French fashion fought to retake its global dominance lost during World War II, her overt and strong predilection for American designers helped foster pride in American-made fashion. The practicality and everyday quality of her clothing highlighted the growing recognition that American designers were best suited to dress American women in clothing that fit their unique lifestyles. While she chose clothing from mainstream designers available to other middle-class women, Mamie Eisenhower’s sense of style perfectly reflected her

ideology of the first lady as the embodiment of an average American woman. This all-American, neighborly persona of the first lady that Mamie Eisenhower represented and reinforced in the minds of the American public throughout the 1950s was quickly overshadowed and forgotten when Jacqueline Kennedy became the first lady in 1961. The young and beautiful first lady revolutionized the image of her position as she departed from her predecessor in favor of a more refined and elite style that set her apart from the average American woman. While Mamie Eisenhower typified 1950s American womanhood, Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to represent the best of American fashion on an international stage. But before Mrs. Kennedy took over the American fashion scene with her oneof-a-kind haute-couture look, Mamie Eisenhower was topping best dressed lists and setting trends in her beloved mail-ordered and off-the-rack bargins.



“Diplomacy Triumphs in Washington Crisis,” New York Times, March 31, 1955, 21; “Blue-Green on the National Scene,” Life, April 25, 1955, 118–21.

2. Jacqueline Kennedy to Oleg Cassini, December 13, 1960, quoted in Oleg Cassini, A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House (New York: Rizzoli, 1995), 30. 3. Mamie Doud Eisenhower to the Douds, January 20, 1931, and September 2, 1933, both quoted in Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike: Memories, Reflections on the Life of Mamie Eisenhower (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1996), 111. 4. Quoted in Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike, 259, 282. 5. Quoted in ibid., 260. 6. Marilyn Irvin Holt and Edith Mayo, interview with Susan Swain, C-SPAN: The First Ladies, Influence and Image; Mamie Eisenhower, October 31, 2013, online at firstladies.c-span.org. 7. Edith Mayo, “‘She’s Making Maturity Glamorous’: Mamie Eisenhower’s White House Style,” White House History, no. 21 (Fall 2007): 23; Karal Ann Marling, “Mamie Eisenhower’s New Look,” in As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 25–28. 8. Quoted in Mayo, “She’s Making Maturity Glamorous,” 18, 25. GETTY IMAGES

9. Lisa Kathleen Graddy and Amy Pastan, The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2014); Marling, “Mamie Eisenhower’s New Look,” 34–38. 10. Marling, “Mamie Eisenhower’s New Look,” 36.

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White House History Quarterly 52 - Mid-Century Fashion - Hunter  

White House History Quarterly 52 - Mid-Century Fashion - Hunter  

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