Nancy's Closet

As first lady, Nancy Reagan was both lauded and lambasted for her lavish, designer-donated wardrobe. Now 86—but, as she proves, still steely beneath her diplomat's demeanor—she is putting those glamorous Galanos gowns and neat Adolfo suits on display.

» Nancy's Closet

Nancy's Closet

Nancy's Closet

As first lady, Nancy Reagan was both lauded and lambasted for her lavish, designer-donated wardrobe. Now 86—but, as she proves, still steely beneath her diplomat's demeanor—she is putting those glamorous Galanos gowns and neat Adolfo suits on display.

Queen Nancy is a dowager now. Nancy Reagan, the former first lady who was praised for bringing Kennedy-esque glamour back to the White House but criticized for her lavish spending, is 86, and the world that made her its center during the Reagan era is fading. In the weeks following a sit-down interview at the Hotel Bel-Air—Reagan’s regular meeting place since she and the 40th president settled nearby in 1989—her confidant Merv Griffin succumbed to prostate cancer; her old friend Brooke Astor, who hosted lunches for the first lady at her New York apartment and presented her with a Council of Fashion Designers of America lifetime achievement award in 1988, passed away at age 105; and former White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, one of the Reagans’ most trusted advisers throughout their political lives, also died.

Reagan’s greatest loss, of course, was the death of her husband in 2004, after 52 years of marriage. She keeps about her—on her person—mementos of him: The bird-shaped brooch on her lapel was a gift from “Ronnie,” and the gold watch on her left wrist was the president’s own.

As she moves slowly to a sofa in the hotel’s Grace Kelly suite, Reagan’s former debutante posture is somewhat bent, and she keeps her oversize reading glasses, necessary because of glaucoma, close at hand. But in other ways, she is still the perfectionist political wife whose elegant personal style was the ideal complement to her husband’s economic optimism and conservative ideology. Her appearance is as meticulous as ever, and her conversation reveals the same disciplined self-possession that made her a force in the White House’s East and West Wings. And as ever, Reagan portrays herself as merely the supportive wife of a man fated for political achievement—a stance that Reagan biographers have shown to be false modesty at the very least.

“Ronnie could have done anything,” insists Reagan when asked about the common belief that her political instincts outstripped her husband’s. “I hope I helped him. But he wanted to be president, then he became president.”

Though she speaks clearly and her memory seems firm, Reagan—who is sitting for an interview to promote an upcoming exhibition at the Reagan Library, “Nancy Reagan: A First Lady’s Style”—proves to be a rather reluctant subject. Unlike the Great Communicator, she is a woman of few words. Friends explain that she is shy around new people but warm and funny in the company of those she trusts. Perhaps. Another explanation may be that after a lifetime in the political arena, Reagan has mastered the subtler arts of diplomacy: evasion and ellipsis. Her responses tend to be intentionally vague, with true meaning often found in what she leaves unsaid. She gives a dozen shades of nuance to the word “no,” for example. Take her response when asked if folksy Rosalynn Carter had any tips to impart during the 1981 transition: “No,” she says decidedly, suppressing a smile that suggests she would just love to air her true opinion of the first lady who preceded her but knows better than to dare. (She does let on that the White House was in “shabby” condition when she first saw it in 1981.)

Later, asked if the negative press she received while in the White House—her taste for splendor earned her the Queen Nancy moniker during the first administration, while later power struggles with West Wing aides led to the nickname Dragon Lady—still stings, Reagan pauses briefly. “Well, not now, no,” she allows, intimating how much it did hurt and for how long.

And finally, when asked if losing her husband has granted her any wisdom she could share with others who are grieving, she stiffens visibly and adds a fierce spin to the same short negation. “Oh, no!” she says with a flash of anger that one would try to breach the protective fortress she built around herself and the ailing president after their return to California. Somewhat more gently, she adds, “That’s a very personal thing.”

Since leaving Washington, Reagan has mostly stayed clear of the press, speaking out only infrequently about stem cell research and, most recently, sharing memories of the fun-loving Griffin with Larry King. When the somber pomp of the president’s state funeral was broadcast, the image of his widow, frail with grief, moved even critics of his administration. Still, Reagan has resisted whatever temptation she may have felt to publicly hash out the past since her 1989 score-settling memoir, My Turn. (Reagan biographer Bob Colacello, author of Ronnie & Nancy: Their Path to the White House—1911 to 1980, suggests that a hair-curling Joan Didion profile of Reagan as first lady of California instilled a lifelong distrust of reporters.)

The opening of “A First Lady’s Style,” however, will draw Reagan, reluctantly or not, back into the public eye this fall. The exhibition will showcase some 80 gowns, cocktail dresses and suits worn by Reagan during her White House years and will launch with a dinner hosted by Diane von Furstenberg on November 8. Reagan’s favored designers—James Galanos, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, among them—are scheduled to attend, along with the surviving members of “the group,” the longtime circle of friends including Betsy Bloomingdale and Marion Jorgensen. “What is so interesting about Nancy is how she’s grown,” muses jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane, who befriended Reagan before she was a governor’s wife. “She was perfectly nice when I first met her, like many other ladies—comme il faut. She became more sophisticated, easier and looser, and always very kind.”

The key looks of Reagan’s mature style include the one-shouldered beaded Galanos inaugural gown from 1981, the Chanel-inspired Adolfo suits she wore on the road during her Just Say No campaign and the gingham shirts she favored at the couple’s beloved Rancho del Cielo, near Santa Barbara. In the accompanying catalog, archival photographs show Reagan, who seems blessed with a secret talent for avoiding wrinkles, even when wearing linen, looking perpetually appropriate and perfectly pulled together. “I don’t like a lot of frills and fusses,” she declares. “I’ve always gone for the more understated look.”

This taste for simple lines and subtle decoration lent her wardrobe a timeless quality. Five feet four and a size two during her White House years, Reagan was able to keep and wear her dresses for eons. Indeed, as the exhibition demonstrates, she donned the same Adolfo velvet cocktail suit from the late Seventies into the current century. “She never went to the extreme,” notes Galanos, who was her most reliable source for the gowns, subtly evocative of old-Hollywood glitz, that Reagan favored on formal occasions. “Nancy’s daytime clothes were very clean and classic, what I call very good American style, the shirtwaist dresses and wonderful Adolfo suits. These clothes were perfect for her lifestyle, and she knew exactly what she was doing.”

Reagan first met Galanos in 1949, while she was still actress Nancy Davis, under contract to MGM. “I had just gotten to California, and there was a shop called Amelia Gray,” she recalls. “She was the first one to carry Jimmy’s clothes, and she was a friend of mine, so I used to go in there all the time. I met him, and we became fast friends.”

“We’d sit in the back of the store, gossip a little bit and have a few laughs,” says Galanos. “She was always immaculate. She knew her style, and she bought a lot of my samples, because they were very small. She had a definite way of looking at things, and you couldn’t”—he searches for the most amusing word—”pervert her in any way.”

Reagan’s first Galanos was a little black dress with a white collar and cuffs—a style she’s favored since her privileged childhood years on Chicago’s East Lake Shore Drive. It cost $125, Reagan recalls, which prompts her to add with a laugh, “Jimmy was obviously just getting started.” (So was she: Her 1981 inaugural gown, which Galanos provided gratis and is now in the Smithsonian collection, was estimated to be worth $10,000.)

Visitors to the Reagan Library may be surprised by the archival depth of the first lady’s closets: The oldest outfit on display will be the gray wool I. Magnin suit she wore to marry Ronald Reagan on March 4, 1952. “Everybody was very annoyed with me for a long time: ‘Come on, Nancy, get rid of these things,’” she says. “Now, of course, I’m everybody’s sweetheart, because I have all of these things that they can use. But no, no, I took a lot of heat.”

Heat is something Reagan became quite accustomed to as scandals erupted around her like brush fire during her husband’s administration. In 1982 she revealed that she’d accepted thousands of dollars in undisclosed gifts of clothes and jewelry. Reagan defended herself by responding that she had simply borrowed the clothes, which would either be returned or donated to museums. This magazine dubbed it her “wear-now, donate-later” policy and reported that Reagan had “personally” selected 12 outfits—including an Adolfo worn at a state dinner for Menachem Begin—to send to the Parsons School of Design, which was to distribute them to other museums. Not everyone liked the idea. Geoffrey Beene wondered who would ensure that her donations were “museum quality,” and Ralph Lauren groused that Reagan’s clothes would “naturally not be representative of the total look of the Seventies and Eighties.” Lauren’s point was not without merit. Fashion history buffs will notice certain gaps in Reagan’s otherwise well-stocked closet: no pouf dresses, no broad power shoulders, none of the frothy gowns favored by plutocrats’ wives on the New York benefit circuit.

Generally speaking, though, Seventh Avenue saw benefits to having a clotheshorse in the White House. “We all signed a letter published in The New York Times,” recalls de la Renta, who was then CFDA president, “that emphasized how important it was that our first lady wear American clothes. Jackie Kennedy wore Givenchy, but Mrs. Reagan dressed in American designers. What better endorsement for our industry than to have a wonderfully well-dressed first lady?”

Reagan doesn’t address the issue today, and the exhibition catalog skims over such brouhaha—as well as the memorable scandal of the Reagan china. That kerfuffle, however, is one Reagan chooses to address. As is well known, in 1981 Reagan commissioned a new set of state china, 220 place settings and elaborate serving pieces, raising private donations from “the group” to cover the $200,000 cost. (Although the practice was criticized, it had sound precedent: Jackie Kennedy solicited money and gifts of furniture from friends for her White House renovation.) What Reagan now explains is that new dinnerware was initially suggested by head usher Rex Scouten. “When we were first starting to do everything at the White House, [Reagan decorator] Ted Graber said to Rex, ‘What do you really need most here?’” recalls Reagan. “And Rex said, ‘We need china. We have not got enough china to serve a dinner.’ That tipped the whole thing off, and boy, did I take a beating for a long time.”

But at least she had a sense of humor about it. At the 1982 Gridiron Dinner, an annual event for the Washington press corps where the president and other top political figures offer themselves up for a ritual roast, organizers had quietly advised Reagan’s office of their plan to mount a musical performance, “Second Hand Clothes,” set to the tune of “Second Hand Rose” and satirizing the first lady’s fashion avarice. Without her husband’s knowledge, Reagan decided to meet the criticism head-on with a few saucy verses of her own. As the curtain rose, Reagan slipped away from her table. “Ronnie thought I was going to the ladies’ room,” she recalls. A few minutes later, the first lady popped onstage in a crazy mishmash of secondhand clothes and belted out her lines with considerable aplomb. At the end, she smashed a plate decorated like the state china, and the crowd rewarded her with a wild standing ovation. It was one of her most politically astute moves, and her mismatched costume will be presented in all its tacky glory in the exhibit. (Reagan’s one serious fashion faux pas, a pair of rhinestone-studded Galanos knickers she wore to a dinner at the American Embassy in Paris in 1982, is not included.)

Reagan’s clothes will be organized thematically, explains exhibition designer Rush Jenkins, with groups of outfits—accompanied by photographs, videos and Reagan’s meticulous personal White House scrapbooks—meant to illustrate the first lady’s various roles: as hostess, ambassador, benefactor of the arts, public servant in support of Foster Grandparents and the Just Say No campaign and, finally, her husband’s helpmate in private moments at the ranch.

Though clothes are the ostensible focus of the show, it is also an occasion for Reagan and her handlers to buff up her legacy. According to Colacello, a longtime supporter of the couple, it’s time for a reassessment. The historical significance of the scandals—which also included allegations of astrology in the Oval Office—has lessened with time, and as key political figures of the era have published their memoirs, the more important influence of Mrs. Reagan has emerged. She was instrumental, says Colacello, in nudging the president away from hard-line ideologues in his cabinet and toward arms-control talks with Mikhail Gorbachev. And contrary to the expectations of her harshest critics, Reagan did not run off to parties at Buckingham Palace after the presidency but rather stayed home in California to tend to her husband through what she has described as the “long goodbye” of his Alzheimer’s.

“She has moved up quite a bit in the estimation of much of the American public,” contends Colacello, who wrote the introduction to the show catalog. “And as people have been able to compare her to her successors, I think she comes across looking pretty good. She achieved a balance between the style of Hillary Clinton, who was seen as too forward, and Laura Bush, who is seen as too reticent.”

What comes across most clearly in the show is Reagan’s ability to advance her husband’s political agenda through artful hostessing, building alliances around the dinner table. Even before settling into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she surprised the city’s social elite with an invitation to a preinaugural party in Georgetown, organized with the help of Katharine Graham, the powerful owner of The Washington Post. “We met, oddly enough, through Truman Capote,” says Reagan of Graham. “Truman kept saying to me, ‘You know, you really should meet Kay.’ And then he’d say to Kay, ‘You know, you really should meet Nancy.’ So lo and behold, we go to a meeting in Sun Valley, and I walked into this place, and there was Kay standing in front of the fireplace. So I went over to her, and I said, ‘Well, at last.’”

Once in the White House, Reagan fully exploited the president’s ceremonial role as head of state—and the irresistible allure of any White House invitation. “The two modern first ladies who understood that were Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan,” says Colacello. “And both their presidents were very well liked by political leaders on both sides of the aisle, by the diplomatic corps and by the public at large.”

Reagan not only hosted countless parties at home—including 56 state dinners sparkled up with stars from Frank Sinatra to Cher—but ventured out to Democratic strongholds in Manhattan and the “Liberal’s Lido” of Martha’s Vineyard, where she dined with Jackie Onassis. Looking back, she recalls the official White House affairs as “fun.” Designer Carolina Herrera remembers the dinners she attended there as “elegant and at the same time cozy” and reports that even the most snobbish guests were impressed by the Reagan touch. “Princess Margaret once told me, ‘My, the White House is very grand,’” she confides. “Isn’t that amazing, coming from her?”

The Reagans traveled widely, and the exhibition follows Nancy on her three Vatican visits with Pope John Paul II and to the summits with the Gorbachevs. It’s fair to say, though, that Reagan’s favorite journey aboard Air Force One ended in England’s royal court. She attended the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana while her husband recovered from the 1981 assassination attempt, and the Reagans later returned to spend two nights with the Queen and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle—a first for any American president. While there, she reveals, she picked up some of the finer points of royal entertaining with the help of her hairdresser, Julius Bengtsson, who traveled with her. After slipping away to watch the staff set the grand table for dinner, he reported back to Reagan. “He said, ‘Well, do you know how they get those tablecloths all straightened out? They walk on them,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘I didn’t know, Julius—tell me more.’”

The final section of the exhibition will focus on the president’s state funeral. The whole occasion, Reagan explains, had been planned decades earlier. “People don’t understand that all presidents, the minute they become president, get a knock at the door,” she says. “And there’s a man there saying, ‘Let’s talk about your funeral.’ At the time I thought, God, that’s a terrible thing. Later on, I thought it was pretty wise.”

It is fitting that Reagan dressed for the portrait that accompanies this story in a neat red suit—a glance at the label shows it to be Oscar de la Renta. The color has been her signature since at least 1966, when she wore a red suit to the press conference at which Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California, and serves as an almost subliminal reminder of the personal power she exercised at her husband’s side. In 1981 she donned a red dress and matching coat when he took the presidential oath, and then, in the full ceremonial grandeur of her role, posed for her state portrait in a flowing, crimson Galanos gown. “I always liked red. It’s a picker-upper,” she says. “I didn’t give it the name of Reagan Red, but that became its name.”

Reagan is a woman who sticks to her guns in matters great and small. Asked if she regrets any decision she made as first lady, she replies in the negative and is quick to employ another of her crafty diplomat’s deflection tactics—humor—by adding with a little laugh, “I could have done without us getting shot.” But in all seriousness, Reagan insists she never considered toning down her grand style to appease her critics. “You have your way of doing things,” she says matter-of-factly. “And that’s it.”