22-Aug, 04:03

21:47, November 02 126 0

2016-11-02 21:47:15
The Washington Legacy of James Galanos

The designer James Galanos, who died last Sunday, left a legacy of elegance and restraint to the fashion world. But he also left something to the political world, which is worth remembering, especially as we teeter on the verge of a new presidential administration.

Specifically: a primer on how to craft a powerful Washington image, and the advantages for someone in the executive office (or nearby) that derive from a close working relationship with a designer.

For, though Nancy Reagan wore clothes from other designers (like Adolfo, Bill Blass, and Oscar de la Renta), when she was first lady, it was her association with James Galanos that forever fixed her in the public eye, and mind.

It remains a memorable partnership between the worlds of fashion and the White House, fueled by elements of old-Hollywood glamour, go-go ‘80s extravagance and a lifelong friendship.

Mrs. Reagan first met “Jimmy,” as she called him, in 1951, when she was Nancy Davis, a Hollywood actress under contract to MGM, and the Philadelphia-born designer was just beginning his career in California.

“I was quite young, and I used to deliver a lot of the clothes by myself,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2007, about their first meeting at the exclusive Beverly Hills boutique Amelia Gray. “She was very fond of me, and we’d sit there at Amelia’s and have a gabfest. She wasn’t married to Ronnie then.”

The writer Bob Colacello, author of “Ronnie and Nancy: Their Path to the White House” and a special correspondent to Vanity Fair, said the boutique was known in those days for dressing the Los Angeles socialites Leonore Annenberg and Betsy Bloomingdale and the more-chic movie stars like Rosalind Russell and Claudette Colbert.

“Amelia was the first person to carry Galanos, and she took a big liking to Nancy Davis, who she thought had good taste and really loved clothes.” Mr. Colacello said.

Miss Davis eventually became Mrs. Reagan, and as the ‘50s turned into the ‘60s, she stuck with Galanos, at least for all the bigger occasions that came along.

She sometimes brought her pricey Galanos dresses back to the designer from one decade to the next, to be reworked, said Mr. Colacello, with tissue-paper carefully stuffed in the sleeves and sheathed in plastic. “Nobody could afford to dress completely with Jimmy,” she once said. “I hang on to what I have.”

At Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural ball as governor of California in 1967, his wife chose a one-shouldered white Galanos strewn with jeweled daisies. At the second, in 1971, she chose a surprisingly slinky gold brocade halter gown with matching coat from the designer that showed off her then-fashionable California tan.

But all of it was preamble for the 1981 inauguration of Reagan as president and Nancy Reagan’s appearance at the ball in (again) a one-shouldered white Galanos, completely embroidered in a beaded pattern of pale ferns.

It was a riposte to the parsimonious Carter administration that had come before (Rosalynn Carter had worn an old blue dress to her inaugural ball). It was a declaration that fashion mattered.

Newspapers were filled with articles about the days-long round of parties, the arrival of the California cohorts in Washington, and speculation about the rumored five-figure cost of the gown, said to be a gift from the designer. Bill Blass said to The New York Times, “I don’t think there’s been anyone in the White House since Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who has her flair.”

Paging through the companion book to the 2007 exhibition “Nancy Reagan: A First Lady’s Style” at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., it is clear that the majority of Mrs. Reagan’s gowns were Galanos designs. Though Reagan red was a staple for her daywear, for the 56 official state dinners and numerous private entertainments Mrs. Reagan hosted, she most often chose white gowns that displayed a cinematic flourish, encrusted with beading, in the style of the long-sleeved dress created for the second inauguration in 1985.

In the pre-internet era when consistency of style made a fashion statement, she wore both of her beloved Galanos inaugural gowns a second time for White House events before they were packed off to museums. For her first state dinner, she pulled a 16-year-old Galanos from her closet, which the designer then updated by adding satin straps to the previously strapless beaded bodice.

And though there were some press quibbles when the first lady wore knickers under a chiffon tunic for a dinner in Paris not long after Mr. Galanos endorsed them on his runway in 1981, generally their collaboration was applauded.

Mr. Galanos was tight-lipped about Mrs. Reagan, said his niece Diane Chrambanis. When it came to their collaboration he was, she said: “Like a vault. The only thing he said to me once was that she knew what worked for her, what looked good on her.”

But even if he didn’t want to talk, his dresses, on her, spoke for him. They still do.