Reagan Library Opens Up Former First Lady's Closet

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is displaying the former first lady's designer gowns and other outfits in a new exhibit called "Nancy Reagan: A First Lady's Style." KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde toured the exhibit with Reagan Library Executive Director Duke Blackwood.

Duke Blackwood: We have about 80 outfits, gowns, and dresses from a number of designers. Clearly, I think the closest relationship is with James Galanos. Since the early '50s, actually, they have been friends, and the exhibit starts off with one of his earlier collections, which is a magnificent red beaded dress.

Kitty Felde: Gorgeous beading! All hand beaded I would imagine, all the way down. If you wear a dress like that, people are going to remember that dress.

Blackwood: But you'll find that Mrs. Reagan actually wore a number of her dresses more than once, and that's how comfortable she was in her style.

Felde: So did you just go up to Mrs. Reagan and say, do you mind if I go through your closet?

Blackwood: It wasn't quite like that. We knew that she had such a wonderful style that we thought it would be great to do an exhibit on her, and so we ask, and she said sure, and we actually did go up, on a number of occasions, and went through her outfits there at the house and then brought a number of them here.

Felde: Alright, the real question is, what does her closet look like? How big is that closet?

Blackwood: I'm not going to comment on that. But there's one over here I want to go to. You have this disheveled look, with mismatched outfits, a very funky hat, rain galoshes, large fake pearls, a little boa coming off of the shoulders, and people are looking at this and they go, what is that? 'Cause clearly, it is not a designer. Well what happened was, is they have an annual Gridiron dinner in Washington for the reporters, and this was in 1982, in March of 1982. Well, at some point in the evening, she said to the president, I need to go do something. So, she gets up and she goes backstage, and she actually changes her wonderful outfit and puts this... costume on, and nobody in the room knew what was going on, especially the president. So all of the sudden, the curtain opens up and she walks out on stage and starts singing, and from that moment on, it helped in the relationship with the press. And by the way, she has a fantastic voice.

This flowing, yellow-gold beaded outfit was actually worn for the second inauguration as governor of California. Classic lines, and again, it's a Mr. Galanos. And it's, it's perfect for the era, and I think people will be actually stunned by this one.

Felde: Although, I have to say, you know, it's 1971, it perhaps wasn't our best era for women's clothing, it's A-line. It kind of looks, I have to say it, like a bathrobe! Would you be caught dead in that do?

Blackwood: None of these I would wear personally, but, you know, fashion's an interesting thing, and I think, throughout the decades, that you see Mrs. Reagan's style, there's a classic elegance about her. And while the '70s may have been challenging for designers, I think this is a perfect example of how good she looked.

Felde: Little cowboy touch over here?

Blackwood: This is what she wore at Rancho del Cielo. This is kind of the private side. You know, at the ranch they were very comfortable, and it's, you know, blue jeans and a suede–

Felde: It's a vest, it's called a vest, but it's not just a vest, it's got more fringe than, oh I don't know, than most folks in the Buffalo Bill extravaganzas would wear.

Blackwood: Well, I don't know if it has more than that. You know, you're not going to be wearing the beaded gowns up at the ranch, and so this was a wonderful way to look at it.

Felde: No, it's the beaded fringe jacket, vest! See, she couldn't leave the beads away.

Blackwood: Probably one of the more poignant outfits here is the funeral dress. This was, again, when the president passed. She spoke with her close friend, Mr. Galanos, who designed a simple, straightforward outfit, and she wore it to the funeral.

Felde: It's wool crepe, and it's a two piece suit. Just a simple jewel neckline, with two very large, they look like buttons almost, or two broaches, gold and black on the right shoulder.

Blackwood: You have to remember that with that many people watching you need to represent not only yourself and your family and the president, but also the country, and she did it with grace and elegance in a very, very difficult time.