Why Oscar de la Renta Was the Designer of Choice for So Many First Ladies

Think of a gorgeous Hollywood star and she’s probably worn Oscar de la Renta (Sarah Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell, and Taylor Swift included, with Naomi calling him “the gentleman of fashion” and Taylor taking time to reflect that “my all-time favorite designer has passed away. Oscar, it was an honor to wear your creations and to know you.”). And while there’s a special sort of magic that comes with seeing one of his magical creations float down a red carpet, there’s something extra meaningful about all of his moments dressing our First Ladies. With this week’s sad news of the designer’s passing, it feels especially right to look back and study how he became the designer of choice for America’s most powerful women.


“Fashion is nonpolitical and nonpartisan,” the designer said in a video created for an exhibit at the Clinton Presidential Library. “Laura Bush is an extraordinary lady, and being with Hillary [Clinton] is always a very special time. To me, it’s a tremendous privilege that I have been able to dress all these extraordinary ladies.”

Though Oscar’s close friendship with the Clintons is well documented, he’d been making calls to the White House long before then. “I started dressing a lot of movie actresses, like Raquel Welch, and First Ladies. Mrs. Ford was the very [first] First Lady of the United States that ever wore my clothes. I have dressed them all,” he revealed in this video with Net-a-Porter. He had a close relationship with Nancy Reagan too, who The Washington Post reports him calling a “model-size” woman who “knew what looked good on her and had a true sense of fashion.”

(Michelle Obama famously took her time with wearing Oscar but just recently picked a knee-length design for a White House fashion education summit earlier this month).

Hillary Clinton recollected her first meeting with Oscar as being something so spontaneous that it can hardly read as anything but serendipity.

“We met in December of 1993 when we hosted the annual reception for the Kennedy Center honorees. I had bought a dress off the rack, and it happened to be one of the Oscar de la Renta dresses for sale,” Hillary revealed. “He and his wonderful wife Annette go through the receiving line, and he takes my hand and goes, ‘Is that my dress?’ He said ‘It’s wonderful, I’m so delighted!'”

“It was amusing to me because I’ve never had someone go through a line and go, ‘Is that my suit!?'” President Clinton added.

In fact, the designer was instrumental in making Hillary’s first-of-its-kind Vogue cover happen.

Vogue has a huge history of always photographing First Ladies, but we’d never put one on the cover before Mrs. Clinton. It was actually Oscar that put it in my mind,” Anna Wintour reveals in the video. “[He] has had a great history with dressing First Ladies.” The resulting cover photo shows a glamorously elegant Hillary on a sofa, waiting to receive whatever splendid things were coming her way and wearing, naturally, an Oscar gown.

“I think that helped demystify my mom,” Chelsea Clinton added. “The first encounter they would have had with her before they read the article was her looking so magnificent in Oscar’s dress on the cover.”

The golden dress Hillary chose for President Clinton’s second inaugural ball, in 1997, was so splendid that it nabbed a spot on our list of the designer’s most memorable creations, ever.

“When I went to see Mrs. Clinton and we talked about the inaugural dress, I asked her ‘What would you like to achieve with this particular dress?’ and she said to me ‘I would like to walk in the room and have Bill look at me and say, ‘Wow, you look great.”” It was mission accomplished for Oscar, whose resplendent long-sleeve number elicited the desired response from the President. “I still remember when Hillary walked out in that gown,” he said. “I think it’s probably the best gift Oscar ever gave us, beyond his friendship.”


And how was his initial introduction to the political set made? The popular story, reported here by The Guardian is that the the wife of the American ambassador to Spain saw some sketches from the Dominican Republic-born designer and requested that he make up a dress for her daughter, Beatrice Cabot Lodge. The girl (and her dress) were photographed for the cover of Life magazine, and, well, it was all pretty much history from there.

I love Oscar’s designs for their devotion to classic beauty and glamour and the sure feeling that there’s nothing else in the world you could slip into to achieve a princess-like feeling any faster. I love the man himself, though, for his well-documented appreciation and celebration of women, which Christina documented with some of his all-time best quotes. As evidenced by his First Lady fan group, he wasn’t threatened by a woman who knew her worth.

“I am lucky that I am part of that movement. To understand the power of a woman today.”

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