The First Lady (2022) Weaves a Fascinating Story

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I was surprised to enjoy The First Lady — Showtime’s 2022 miniseries about the lives of former First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama — as much as I did. Part of that comes from the strong performances by leads Gillian Anderson as Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ford, and Viola Davis as Obama. Another part comes from the way the stories were told, with flashbacks and pivotal moments from all three lives interwoven together. Part comes from the fact that I actually knew very little about Betty Ford, whose term in office ended when I was about 2-3, and who had a fascinating life! And part comes from quality costumes.

I’m going to focus in this review on Eleanor Roosevelt and the younger Betty Ford, as these costumes fit most within our time frame here at Frock Flicks … although I do want to say I enjoyed the Michelle Obama scenes just as much, because you got to see a lot of her background and her personal take on events.

Although the series begins with the three ladies mid-way through their terms, there’s lots of flashbacks; given Roosevelt’s age, that means we go as far back as the Edwardian era:

Eleanor Roosevelt debutante

Eleanor Roosevelt in her coming out portrait taken in New York City, 1902, National Archives and Records Administration

2022 The First Lady

The film’s Eleanor in her school days.

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At her debutante ball in 1902.

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Visiting uncle President Teddy Roosevelt in the White House.

eleanor-roosevelt-wedding

Eleanor Roosevelt wearing her wedding dress in New York City, 1905, National Archives and Records Administration

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Sadly the only image I can find of the wedding dress on screen.

According to the New York Times,

“[Executive producer/showrunner Cathy] Schulman and Signe Sejlund, the costume designer for the series, were focused on getting the clothes as accurate as possible. It was, Ms. Schulman said, ‘crucial.’ Starting in late 2020, teams of researchers began collecting historical documentation and images from the periods represented, many of which had been preserved for posterity, the better to build wardrobes that could consist of about 75 changes for each woman. These included such major public sartorial statements as their wedding dresses, inauguration outfits and the gowns they wore for their official White House portraits” (Fashioning ‘The First Lady’).

For that wedding dress, costume designer Signe Sejlund said, “We managed to do a complete copy of that” (Costume designer Signe Sejlund on capturing the glamour of US First Lady fashion).

Probably my favorite looks were from Roosevelt’s pre-White House years, if only because I love 1910s fashions so much:

2022 The First Lady

Pretty blouse and skirt, lots of hair.

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Same outfit, with the children’s governess/Franklin’s cousin.

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This was my favorite!

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Lovely use of color, and that hat!

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Another nice teens ensemble.

They didn’t always stick to literal recreations, for example. Eleanor Roosevelt wore a huge floral necklace to her husband’s first inauguration, which designer Sejlund told the New York Times “looked almost ridiculous when you see it with a modern eye” (Fashioning ‘The First Lady’). And the production did drop that element:

Franklin D. Roosevelt – Franklin D. Roosevelt inauguration. Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt March 4, 1933. (Photo by: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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With her overbearing mother-in-law (played by Ellen Burstyn) and sans necklace.

Older Eleanor looks very much right out of 1930s and 1940s photographs. According to Sejlund,

“There are so many images of all these ladies, so we had to do replicas of some of their most iconic wardrobe items which was really interesting and fun to do, because we have actresses playing them that don’t have the same shape body or height but still, you have to make it feel like the first lady they are portraying” (Costume designer Signe Sejlund on capturing the glamour of US First Lady fashion).

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In that pink lace you see SO often in vintage dresses, with her daughter.

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At a bohemian party. Note women in PANTS!

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Lightweight floral chiffon.

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Velvet for a fancy dinner. They did a good job aging Anderson as Roosevelt.

However, as Jezebel rightly pointed out, the MOUTHS WERE VERY DISTRACTING. According to makeup designer Carol Rasheed,

“[The women] all had personals [personal makeup artists], so I really did not spend a lot of time in the older years. Again, I looked at the younger person. And really, it was just a matter of making sure that the brows were kind of correct, making sure that the eye color was correct. And with the younger Eleanor Roosevelt, we did have to have a mold of her mouth made to make sure that we had teeth to give the overbite that Eleanor had. That was the only thing that I can think of that we really had to try and get that correct” (How Viola Davis Transformed Into Michelle Obama in ‘The First Lady’).

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I’m not saying Roosevelt didn’t have an overbite, but did she do THIS with her chin??

ALL of Betty Ford’s life was fascinating to me, as all I knew was “alcoholic/Betty Ford Center.” She started out as a modern dancer, studying with Martha Graham:

Photograph of Betty Bloomer Dancing, 1934, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Photograph of Betty Bloomer Dancing, 1934, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

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Behind-the-scenes photo of the Martha Graham rehearsal scenes.

Betty was always very glam:

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Working in a department store.

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Dancing | Photo credit: Murray Close/SHOWTIME.

Again they recreated Betty’s wedding outfit — it was her second wedding, so no white dress:

Gerald Ford and Betty Ford on their wedding day, 1948, Ford Library & Museum

Gerald Ford and Betty Ford on their wedding day, 1948, Ford Library & Museum

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I actually feel like this is better quality satin than the original, but maybe that’s just the photo quality?

For older Betty, they went big 1970s bouffant hair and lots of color:

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Oh the polyester!

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I didn’t buy Pfeiffer’s/Ford’s aging as much | Photo credit: Murray Close/SHOWTIME.

And they recreated iconic looks, like this one in which she poses on top of a White House dining table:

First Lady Betty Ford Dancing on the Cabinet Room Table, 1977, National Archives and Records Administration

First Lady Betty Ford Dancing on the Cabinet Room Table, 1977, National Archives and Records Administration

2022 The First Lady

For both Anderson/Roosevelt and Pfeiffer/Ford’s makeup, Rasheed said,

“We wanted to make sure the eye colors were the same for each First Lady’s, from their young years to when they’re adults. That’s the sort of nuance you look at when you’re doing someone’s likeness, especially if you are doing someone so high-profile, like the First Lady. As the Makeup Department Head, that’s the association I had for all three blocks, but really, mostly for Eleanor and the Betty Ford block — minimalist makeup that was consistent across the years of their lives” (The First Lady‘s Makeup Department Head Carol Rasheed on Creating Looks for Several Historical Figures).

So, if you haven’t checked out The First Lady, I strongly suggest you do! I think you’ll like it.

 

Have you seen The First Lady? How well do you think they captured these iconic women’s looks?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

4 Responses

  1. SarahV

    Eleanor’s wedding dress was very, very extra.

    I totally became enamored of Betty Ford watching this, and I really thought that Michelle Pfeiffer sank her whole heart into this role. Betty Ford’s style was typical polyester middle class hausfrau, but they glammed it up nicely. Her flowing teal gown and her bouffant hair was regal and elegant and yet still very much her.

    (Do not get me started on Viola Davis’ portrayal of Michelle Obama. Ugh. )

    Reply
  2. Monabel

    As someone who has been sewing since the mid 60’s, I want to say that polyester in those years was not always cheesy and awful. Often, maybe usually, but there were some high quality textiles that were a joy to sew and looked good.

    Reply
  3. Lily Lotus Rose

    I was aware of this series but on the fence about watching it. This post has made me add it to my Watchlist. Thanks!

    Reply
  4. hsc

    “I’m not saying Roosevelt didn’t have an overbite, but did she do THIS with her chin??”

    I don’t have Showtime, so I can’t judge Gillian Anderson’s performance by anything other than what I see here– and I guess that gesture could look worse in the actual footage.

    But from photos I’ve seen, Eleanor Roosevelt DOES appear to have had a habit of doing that thing with her chin– tilting her head down a little, so that her forehead and eyes are prominent and her chin kind of “tucks in” and melts into her neck.

    She did it more after she was older and was married to Franklin, and I haven’t seen a young photo where she does this. In those, her head is usually up and she makes direct eye contact, while the older photos of her seem a little– evasive? Uncomfortable with the attention? Signs of an unhappy marriage?

    You can even see it in the inauguration photo earlier in the post, though the photo of Anderson makes it look exaggerated and even comical, and I suppose she could be overplaying it.

    However, Roosevelt did have a really weak chin and jawline in addition to the overbite, while Anderson has an extremely different face, longer with a prominent chin and slightly aquiline nose. She really doesn’t have the face to pull this off even with the “overbite” dental appliance, so that chin thing is about the best she can do.

    And that’s been a problem for just about any actress trying to play Eleanor Roosevelt– she was a great lady, but had an unusual face that’s hard to duplicate for an actress who’s “conventionally attractive” enough to get to the level where you’d be considered for the role. And “character actresses” largely don’t have the name value to get cast unless it’s a brief appearance rather than a lead role.

    (About the closest facial match I can think of is the late great character actress Alice “first Gladys Kravitz” Pearce, but she was locked into comedy supporting roles.)

    Reply

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