Jan 2, 2009

A First Lady a Day: Bess

Bess Truman was an intensely private woman. She has seen what the press could do. And she was having none of it. She had no intentions of being an activist First Lady like Eleanor Roosevelt. That was one hard act to follow. Bess was an active partner in Harry Truman’s career, she supported him in 1948 when no one thought he could win, she was a shrewd judge of character, and she even helped write speeches. But she did it all privately. Bess Truman came from a social world in which a Lady was in the papers only three times in her life: her birth, her marriage and her death. She would no more have posed in her Inaugural gowns for Life magazine like Eleanor and Mamie than walk on the moon. I believe she used Agasta, a Washington D.C. dressmaker who was tasteful and most importantly, discreet, for her wardrobe needs. Bess was not glamorous. She was a natural athlete, a fine tennis player, a baseball fan. And her husband adored her.
Now - Dresses!
It’s not easy to find photos of Bess Truman in her formal Inaugural gowns. There are many photos of her in a suit for Truman’s solemn 1945 swearing in at the death of Franklin Roosevelt. But at Truman’s 1949 Inaugural Ball- very few. I did find these group shots from the Truman Library website. Oddly, neither of these dresses is the one shown in the Smithsonian display photos in their online archives. hmm.
"The Truman Family at the 1949 Inaugural Ball. Date: January 20, 1949
People pictured: Mesta, Perle, ca. 1890-1975; Truman, Bess Wallace, 1885-1982;( second from left) Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972; Truman, Margaret (Mary Margaret), 1924-"

" Truman family at Inaugural Ball.
Date: ca. January 1949Mesta, Perle, ca. 1890-1975; Truman, Bess Wallace, 1885-1982; ( on extreme left) Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972; Truman, Margaret (Mary Margaret), 1924- "

"President and Mrs. Truman, Vice President Barkley, his daughter, and Margaret Truman at the inaugural gala in 1949. Date: January 19, 1949"

As to these: as best I can tell, nice formal dresses in good fabrics for almost any conservative middle aged, middle class woman of the late 40s. I would like to see more of the dark, possibly velvet draped gown. Looks like the same fur cape.

I give her a B. Nothing brilliant, but nothing wrong, either. She knew who she was.

Bonus Photo: Bess Truman in 1901 at the time of her high school graduation. How lovely.


Anonymous said...

My Great Grandmother was designer Madame Pola, who designed Bess Truman's inauguration gown.
My great grandmother HATED the gown, and used to complain the Mrs. Truman was 'very cheap'. Of course Mrs. Truman had a great say in the style, fabric and design of the gown and my great grandmother did not believe it was her best work, not by a long shot. But ironically, it is the most well known.
My great grandmother also designed all of Margret Truman's dresses when Margret decided she wanted to be a singer (I believe).

Anonymous said...

In all fairness, Mrs Truman was not cheap, she was just frugal. She had to be frugal. The Trumans were not wealthy like the Roosevelts or the Kennedys. They were strictly middle class. Congress had to give President Truman a special allowance so that he could afford to live in the White House. In those days the President was required to pay the salaries of his own servants, as well as their meals.
Also, you must remember that President Truman served during the years of wartime austerity. Even though 1949 was a few years after the war ended, fine quality goods were still hard to obtain. I once visited the Truman home in Independence and I can attest, while it is comfortable, it is by no means, luxurious.