The Washington legacy of designer James Galanos

Mrs Nancy Reagan at the inaugural ball for her husband Ronald Reagan (both left), in a gown by James Galanos, in Washington in 1981.
Mrs Nancy Reagan at the inaugural ball for her husband Ronald Reagan, in a gown by James Galanos, in Washington in 1981.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The designer James Galanos, who died on Oct 30, not only left a legacy of elegance and restraint to the fashion world, but he also left something to the political world, which is worth remembering.

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 (such as Adolfo, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta) when she was First Lady, it was her association with 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, fuelled by elements of old-Hollywood glamour, go-go 1980s 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: "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."

Ms Davis eventually became Mrs Reagan and, as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, 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 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 Mr Ronald Reagan's first inaugural ball as governor of California in 1967, his wife chose a one-shouldered white Galanos strewn with jewelled daisies. At the second, in 1971, she chose a surprisingly slinky gold brocade halter gown with a matching coat from the designer that showed off her then-fashionable California tan.

But all of it was preamble for the 1981 inauguration of Mr Reagan as president and Mrs 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. Mrs 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 rumoured five-figure cost of the gown, said to be a gift from the designer.

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."

In the pre-Internet era when consistency of style made a fashion statement, Mrs Reagan 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.

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."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'The Washington legacy of designer James Galanos'. Subscribe