It is a coincidence, but a telling one, that the day after “The First Lady,” the series that is a revisionist take on presidential wives as seen through the intertwined stories of Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt, premiered on Showtime, Dr. Jill Biden hosted the White House Easter egg roll. Or rather, the Easter “Eggucation” roll.
There she stood, the current first lady and the only one out of more than 50 (official and acting) to keep her pre-administration day job, like a bouquet of hyacinths in a pink dress festooned with a veritable garden of florals, a coordinating purple coat and fuchsia gloves, flanked by her besuited husband and two life-size bunnies. She exuded warmth and family values, embodying the platonic ideal of a political spouse, while also promoting her signature cause (education).
If ever there was a real-life illustration of the balancing act between role-playing and real issues that is part of performing one of the strangest non-job jobs that exists, this was it.
After all, what is the first lady? Unelected, but part of the package; beholden to the West Wing, but in an office, if not an Office, of her own; emblematic, somehow, of American womanhood writ large. The human face of an administration.
Which is to say, said Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history at Princeton, she is supposed to be “the ideal wife as helpmeet: swearing (or affirming), to the best of her ability, to preserve (cook, care), protect (as in protecting time) and defend (no matter what) the president.”
Exactly how strange that position is, forms the heart of “The First Lady,” a bit of historical didacticism dressed up as pop culture entertainment that makes the case for the presidential wife as the progressive social conscience of an administration, thus aiming to change the narrative from one largely focused on image-making (clothes! holiday events! state dinners!) to one focused on substance.
Yet what the series, which flips between moments in each first lady’s life that are connected thematically, rather than chronologically, may do best is illustrate just how intertwined the roles actually are — onscreen as in life. The first reaction of viewers (at least on social media) was not to the premise of the show, which gives its first ladies credit for, among other things, championing women’s rights and desegregation (Eleanor Roosevelt, as played by Gillian Anderson); changing the conversation around breast cancer, mammograms and addiction (Betty Ford, played by Michelle Pfeiffer); and fighting for gay marriage and exposing racism (Michelle Obama, by Viola Davis). Rather, it was to the facial tics, especially the lip pursing, of Ms. Davis as Mrs. Obama.
By how they look, we think we know them. “The two things are intrinsically connected,” said Cathy Schulman, the showrunner and executive producer of “The First Lady.” When it comes to first ladies, how they present in the world becomes shorthand for who they are and what they do. It’s the bridge of “relatability” (in the words of the show’s Barack Obama) from the White House to every house. Onscreen as, perhaps, on the political stage.
It’s why, even as the characters themselves chafe against the strictures of their new position — as Laura Bush warns Mrs. Obama, people are going to judge everything she does, including what she wears; as Mrs. Obama rolls her eyes at attempts to make her a “Black Martha Stewart”; as Mrs. Ford announces her belief that you can be “ladylike” and yourself at the same time — Ms. 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.
Jason Wu, who designed both of Mrs. Obama’s inaugural gowns, agreed to recreate the first one — the silver-white dress that seemed to proclaim a new dawn — for Ms. Davis. (In part because the original had been donated to the Smithsonian, and he wanted one for his archive.) Ms. Sejlund scoured the RealReal for a copy of the Milly dress Mrs. Obama wore in her portrait, and found it, albeit in the wrong size, so she acquired more fabric from the designer to reinvent it.
Some are clones of the originals, including Mrs. Ford’s shirtdresses, often paired with the silk scarves she favored, her many polka dots and her quilted bathrobes — especially the yellow robe she wore when she left the hospital after her mastectomy, when, Ms. Schulman said, “she knew the place would be crawling with journalists.” It was a canny choice that reflected her desire to be as transparent as possible about connecting her own situation to that of other women. (How many first ladies before her had been publicly photographed in their dressing gowns?)
And some are conceptually the same, like the wide belts that, along with the pearls, cardigans and sleeveless sheaths, became a signature of Mrs. Obama, but which were shrunk down to be in proportion with Ms. Davis’s smaller frame. Then there was the giant floral necklace Eleanor Roosevelt wore to her husband’s first inauguration, which, while very au fait in the early 1930s, “looked almost ridiculous when you see it with a modern eye,” Ms. Sejlund said.
The necklace was ultimately left in the closet, unlike the collection of jaunty hats that were a Roosevelt trademark and that played a starring role in Mrs. Roosevelt’s 1941 visit to Tuskegee Army Air Field, where she demonstrated her support for Black airmen with a flight that was so smooth, she announced to the world, she “never lost” her hat.
All such accessories are on some level recognizable because they serve as wormholes to the events portrayed. We may not remember them exactly, but we’ve probably seen the picture. It exists in our shared memory book, just as the photo of Mrs. Biden in her stylized florals with the rabbits will. Acknowledging that likelihood doesn’t take away from her achievements or the connection she made between holiday décor and learning. It supports it.
They are, after all, effectively costumes for real life characters playing a very specific role in a show everyone can watch.