Carolina Herrera, Adolfo Remember Nancy Reagan: She "Gave Glamour to the White House"

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan - REX - P 2016

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan - REX - P 2016

The designers recall how the fashion-forward first lady wore couture at a time before stylists existed. Says Herrera, "She knew exactly what looked good on her."

Amid the Republican candidacy circus, the Reagan administration often is referenced with near-reverential nostalgia. It's not just the former leading man who gave Wall Street one of its biggest booms, but his size 2 first lady who morphed from Hollywood actress to social asset, setting a tone of elegance in the White House. Some critics saw her as extravagant (her $209,508 china plate purchase while the country was still in a recession is notorious), while others noted limited success with advocacy (such as her "Just Say No'' anti-drug campaign). But those who crossed her sartorial path experienced a dedication and taste that helped create the Reagan legacy.

"Mrs. Reagan gave glamour to the White House, like Mrs. Kennedy,'' says Carolina Herrera, who designed dresses for both first ladies. "Her style was very special, and she knew exactly what looked good on her. There was one evening when she was wearing a green velvet gown, and reporters asked something political like Iran. She turned around and said simply, 'This dress is Carolina Herrera,' as if she was saying, 'We are talking about fashion now.' "

Herrera, one of several American designers (including Bill Blass and James Galanos) whom the first lady favored, says Reagan moved easily between Washington and Hollywood circles. "My husband and I convinced her to come with us to the lunch Barry Diller was giving on the Saturday before the Oscars. There were a lot of stars including Warren Beatty, and she was a great success. There was mutual admiration.''

Adolfo, who recalls creating a favorite red suit as a highlight of their relationship, also was fond of Reagan. "She was very creative and a pure delight!'' he tells THR. Rush Jenkins, co-curator of a retrospective at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 2007, worked closely with the former first lady's wardrobe. "When I first met her at her home in Bel Air, she answered the door,'' he recalls. "We sat on the veranda and went through scrapbooks for four hours. She brought out tea and cookies.'' Jenkins adds that it was challenging to find 5-foot-4 mannequins to match her frame and that Galanos helped style the exhibit. "They were very good friends. She loved his red crepe dress she wore for her official portrait, but his inaugural gowns were her favorites.'' The exhibition's opening night was designed to be like a state dinner. "Diane von Furstenberg was master of ceremonies,'' says Jenkins. "The best part was seeing Mrs. Reagan so happy to see an exhibit that featured her life, her legacy with the president and her appreciation of beautiful couture.''

This story first appeared in the April 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.