On March 12th at 1 PM EST, Fashion Group International (FGI) partnered with New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) to present “Fashion and the First Ladies,” a panel discussion on how the styles of the first ladies impact American culture. 

The panel featured renowned voices within the fashion industry:

Moderated by former fashion editor for The Washington Post and Pulitzer prize winner Robin Givhan, the panel featured Oscar De La Renta, Fernando Garcia, fashion writer Carson Poplin, and Chief Curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology Dr. Valerie Steele.

 What is New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT)?

 According to Cynthia Lopez, New York Women in Fashion & Television was founded by two women (a journalist and filmmaker) in 1977, the night of the New York City blackout. “They brought ‘light’ to a very specific issue we were facing in the media,” said Cynthia, referring to the inequalities in pay, work, and job opportunities women were facing in the film and media industries. 

Today, NYWIFT promotes equality in the moving industry through developing programs designed to recognize executive and creative talent such as their MUSE awards, providing case studies showing how women achieved creative excellence, presenting professional development workshops, and developing a pipeline for women to access the media and entertainment industry.

NYWIFT holds several monthly panels that allow for continuing conversations on how to promote equity in the film and media industry. Thus, during a lunch meeting with Marian Alenkhe, Assistant Brand Manager of marketing for FGI, Cynthia and Marian decided to combine forces and hold the “Fashion and The First Ladies” panel on March 12th.  

The goal of the panel was bringing together independent filmmakers and fashion industry people together to have conversations about contemporary labor issues and trends and overall exciting things, Cynthia and Marian looked to the first ladies on how influential their style is to women across the globe, and how much of what they wear is broadcasted and how that affects their designers, both positively and negatively. 

“We wanted to bring independent filmmakers and fashion industry people together to have conversations about contemporary labor issues and trends and overall exciting things. Half the country has been working in their pajamas–people want to feel elevated!” said Cynthia.

Laura Bush Innaugural Ball 2005
Laura Bush Innaugural Ball 2005. Image courtesy of Oscar de la Renta.

Why Are We Obsessed With What the First Lady Is Wearing?

One of the main takeaways Cynthia wanted viewers to leave the panel with was a feeling of inspiration, and the event clearly accomplished this goal. The panel kicked off with a reflection on some iconic styles worn by first ladies throughout history; including the famous dress made out of recycled materials worn by Edith Roosevelt, the exquisite wardrobe of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the magnetic and influential style of Jackie Kennedy.

Hillary Clinton Inaugural Ball 1992
Hillary Clinton Inaugural Ball 1992. Image courtesy of Oscar de la Renta

Robin asked the panelists a key question to the overall theme of the panel: why are we obsessed with what the first lady is wearing? “The first lady represents the administration” answered Valerie Steele, “we expect her to live up to that.” Carson and Fernando agreed, expressing that it is a duty of the first lady to participate in fashion in a way that represents all of us. The first lady thus serves as a pipeline between the white house and the everyday citizens of the United States.

Fashion Icons: Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris

This idea raises further questions though. Do we only care about what the first lady is wearing because she’s a woman? Would we care the same about an eventual “first gentleman”? To answer these questions, the panelists looked specifically at Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama–two of the most influential fashion icons in the White House. 

Dr. Jill Biden Atelier
Fernando Garcia in Atelier. Dr. Jill Biden’s dress. Image courtesy of Oscar de la Renta

Carson expressed how much Michelle resented the attention paid towards her fashion, but still used what she wore to promote equity and diversity in the fashion industry. Michelle faced extensive criticism for what she wore, likely in part due to her race, expressed Valerie. 

Critics were often suggesting Michelle “didn’t know how to dress” due entirely to her being African American, and this affected the way Michelle dressed–causing her to stray away from pants and wear mostly classy skirts and dresses but still wearing a diverse array of designers, as Michelle describes in her book “Becoming.” 

Similarly, Fernando believes the focus on what Kamala Harris is due mostly in part that she is a “powerful woman,” and powerful women can inspire through how they dress.

A central theme to this event was the idea that fashion designers and women in the media industry are encouraged to collaborate when faced by constant criticism and judgement. Both designers and those who  wear the designers are in the public eye constantly, and this includes first ladies and their designers.

Dr. Jill Biden Joe Biden
Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. Image courtesy of Oscar de la Renta.

What’s next for NYWIFT?

In terms of what NYWIFT and FGI are doing to continue this conversation of fashion, diversity, and equity in the entertainment industry, NYWFT’s annual creative summit will bring together both narrative and television makers to talk about pay equity and diverse work environments and how to work together and improve the lives of women working in these industries. 

NYWIFT is constantly holding programs to promote equity and help women develop their careers, and some of the ongoing initiatives include NYWIFT’s The Writers Lab for women over 40 that selects twelve script writers a year to be mentored and get their scripts to the best possible places they can be. You can visit NYWIFT’s website at https://www.nywift.org for more information.