on trend

Why Do US First Ladies’ Hairdos Matter?

April 5th 2017

Far from being yet another expression of vanity or the collateral drudgery of performing formal engagements, First Ladies hairstyles – whether discreet, glamorous or sophisticated – set the tone at the White House and have a tremendous influence on Americans. From Mary Todd Lincoln or Mamie Eiseinhower’s dos to Michelle Obama’s bangs and Melania Trump’s loose locks, what exactly do the First Ladies hairdos tell us?

A Political Message

The new FLOTUS (First Lady Of The United States), Melania Trump, flaunts long honey locks, styled by her expert hairstylist Mordechai Alvow. A former model, Melania definitely has all the elements that make for beauty bloggers and fashionistas’ inspiration. Yet, it’s in the political field that her hairdo makes waves. Actress Olivia Wilde posted a video of herself on Instagram where she said goodbye to her long hair, opting for a mid-length messy lob with the hashtag #nomoremelaniahair. In Hollywood, Emma Stone in La La Land, Emma Watson, America Ferrera, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Lawrence or Miley Cyrus joined in to state their opposition to the President with less primped and even slightly “I woke up like this” hair. Poitical manifesto, fashion trend or mere coincidence?

Donald and Melania Trump
Photo credits: U.S.-Army-Sgt.-Kalie-Jones

FLOTUS have often had to put up with political comments over their hairstyle. Michelle Obama’s hair, although often imitated, was also criticized by Afro-American movements who saw her sleek hairdo as untrue to her cultural heritage. In 2009, “Time” magazine wrote extensively about “Why Michelle Obama’s Hair Matters”.

Michelle Obama Hairstyles
Photo credits: Joyce N. Boghosian

Carl Anthony, historian at the National First Ladies’ Library, remembers a 1961 State dinner in Versailles where Jackie Kennedy wore her à la Fontange chignon in order to honor France: a beautiful upswept hairdo styled by Alexandre de Paris, adorned with jewelry, matching her Givenchy gown. In the same vein, “Grace Coolidge had wanted very much to go from her “horseshoe wave” style to a “bob”, which was the rage of the Jazz Age – but the President refused to let her do so, feeling it would become too radical a symbol for his conservative administration,” continues the historian.

Grace Coolidge 1924. Photo credits: @ Harris & Ewing

But so much for the far-fetched analysis, says Anthony: “I don’t think any First Ladies have ever consciously chosen a hairstyle to do anything except flatter themselves. What the press and public interprets it all to somehow mean – that is out of their control.” Anthony still remembers how commentators made fools of themselves trying to figure out political statements in Hillary Clinton’s frequent hairstyle changes. It even became some kind of joke, with the then FLOTUS saying: “If I ever want to get Bosnia off the front page, all I have to do is change my hairstyle”.

Hillary Clinton’s hairstyles
Hillary Clinton 2016 Photo credits: Gage Skidmore

Style Icons

It is however unquestionable that ”First Ladies across all eras have been seen as fashion and style leaders”, explains Steven Brawley, Editor-in-chief of pinkpillbox. Before being overthrown by actresses and models, FLOTUS were the most influential and exposed American women. Some of them really had a style of their own and set off their trend.

Mary Lincoln found it charming to wear a crown of fresh roses; while the beautiful and bold Frances Cleveland, at 21, was thrust to the title of 1886 It girl with her shaved neck, curly bangs and chignon. Her unconventional look set off a stampede among young women who rushed to the barber’s, demanding their “A la Frankie” cut.

Mamie Eisenhower was marked by her short killer bangs and her “Princess Leia” side buns. First thoroughly disapproved of by the press, her signature do finally became popular through actresses such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn. At the end of the ’50s, the mania caught on in America. Housewives would even stick scotch tape on their daughter’s forehead so they could get a straight trim. Elizabeth Arden went as far as publishing an instructions guide on how to get the state-of-the-art Mamie Bangs.

Mamie Eisenhower hairstyles
Mamie Eisenhower. Crédits photo : @White House

A Way Of Life

If not intentionally political, First Ladies’ hairdos often characterize a way of life at the White House. Barbara Bush always insisted on staying simple and natural, refusing the services of a driver or private jet as much as dying her white hair. Michelle Obama made several changes to her hair in complete harmony with her image of relaxed and savvy First Lady.

Barbara Bush's hairstyles
Barbara Bush. Photo credits: David Valdez, White House Photo Office

Elegant, speaking several languages and well-educated, Jackie Kennedy was definitely the most influential of all. “Her famous bouffant by Kenneth Battelle was her most famous look,” says Steven Brawley. Nicknamed “the bubble”, she drew the attention of women all over the world. An instructional booklet was distributed, detailing how to recreate Jackie’s coif. There was even a song about the spread of the Jackie look. “Jackie was the symbol of American women of her time,” explains Brawley. “As a wife, mother, and an emerging career woman (she had previously worked as a reporter and had a degree from George Washington University), she showed both a practical and formal side to the roles women play.” As they copied the First Lady’s hairstyle, American women were actually embracing a new way of life.

Jackie Kennedy's hairstyles
Jackie Kennedy. Photo credits: Robert Knudsen

Today, as the beach waves trend is ever-hotter with Hollywood actresses, although not a direct political manifesto against Donald Trump’s migratory policy, it might be the expression of a longing for more simplicity. An aspiration to a less vain, superficial, arrogant and self-centered lifestyle, as opposed to the gilded-bling madness of the flaming-hair billionaire President and his wife.

So who is YOUR favorite: Jackie, Michelle, Mamie, Hillary or Melania?