First impressions: an analysis of media coverage of first ladies and their inaugural gowns from Jackie Kennedy in 1961 to Michelle Obama in 2009

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University of Alabama Libraries

The Presidential Inaugural Ball is a special moment for every president’s wife because it is her first official public appearance as first lady of the United States. Historically, the manner in which the first lady presents herself in the way she dresses often contributes to her public image. Scrutiny from the media includes a focus on what she wears to the inauguration, as well as examination and analysis of her inaugural ball gown that evening. The gowns have a tradition of setting the tone for the first lady in the new administration as well as providing glimpses of a first lady’s personality. The gown gives the world a look at her personal style and a glimpse at her potential influence on fashion trends. Most first ladies recognize and understand the expectations of the role and what it means to the public. Some, however, have questioned why their appearance should matter so long as they are true to themselves. In positions of power, though, appearances are important because the media can use fashion as a lens to filter and interpret information to the public. Research on the news media coverage of first ladies and their inaugural gowns identified four themes: Feminism and the media’s reflection of society’s changing views of the first lady’s role; the media’s descriptions of first ladies, specifically references to their dress sizes and their physique; ethnocentrism and the fashion industry’s unbridled interest in and reliance on what the first lady wears; and the perspective of moderation in that the inaugural gown should be nice but not too expensive. Each theme has an intrinsic news value interjected into that coverage as revealed by Herbert J. Gans: Individualism, altruistic democracy, ethnocentrism, and moderatism, respectively. The media’s tendency to fixate on the first lady’s fashion style and clothing choices is best described as a fascination, almost an obsession at times, beginning with her selection of the inaugural gown. This thesis examines newspaper and magazine coverage and reaction to inaugural gowns from First Ladies Jackie Kennedy in 1961 to Michelle Obama in 2009.

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Journalism, Mass communication, Fashion