Throughout history, the title of the First Lady of the United States has been none other than the “hostess of the White House.” As the wife of the President, her duties are varied — some involve political agendas and management of the White House and its staff, while others include championing social causes and standing by her man at official events and ceremonies.
The First Ladies have each made their own powerful mark in history alongside their husbands, the leaders of the free world, and that’s exactly what Showtime‘s The First Lady explores. The 10-episode drama takes a deep look at three of the most influential first ladies of the 20th century — Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson). The show delves into each of their personal journeys to the White House, their family lives, and what each has contributed to society to affect change.
Over the years, the First Lady has had her own style, some more flamboyant than others, and what they wore has always been on display. That’s where Costume Designer Signe Sejlund has excelled, combing through real photographs from historical moments over the decades to get just the right material, colors, and looks to match each woman’s famous wardrobe. Her credits include Serena, The Night Manager, Bird Box, and The Undoing, but it was The First Lady that brought Sejlund her first Emmy nomination.
Below the Line spoke with Signe Sejlund via Zoom while she was on summer vacation in Sweden, with a bountiful forest as her backdrop. She discussed all the research that went into designing each First Lady’s look and personal fashions stitch for stitch, from the 1930s, 1970s, and 2010, so that they would be as authentic as possible. She described how she created a color box of textures and prints so their clothes reflected the time period that they lived in the White House, and she even had the opportunity to pick the brain of Michelle Obama’s personal stylist. Read on for more:
Below the Line: What sort of research did you do to begin this project?
Signe Sejlund: On this show, compared to everything else I’ve ever done, this was so based on research. We wanted to be as accurate as we possibly could. When you’re portraying the First Family and these ladies, accuracy has to be spot-on. The research was enormous and luckily there’s so much footage of these women. Michelle Obama might be the most photographed woman [of] the 20th century. It’s a little different with Betty Ford and especially with Eleanor Roosevelt, and even [they] are quite documented and photographed. It was also about etiquette. What do you wear in the White House? Is it formal or not formal?
BTL: With such an enormous task, who helped you out?
Sejlund: I had an amazing co-designer, Felicia Jarvis, who worked in Los Angeles, so we were working two coasts at the same time. We were shooting in Atlanta and we were prepping in Los Angeles so there was a lot going back and forth.
BTL: Did you get an opportunity to speak with Michelle Obama about her style for your research?
Sejlund: I was in contact with her stylist who was lovely and knows her very well, so we had a long conversation. I wanted to make sure that what we did was correct and what she actually had in mind. One thing that was tricky with Michelle Obama is that it’s actually period. Her clothes are basically dated but everyone thinks of her as so stylish. Yes, she was and she is, but if you look at the time that we are portraying her, it was not maybe what we find super stylish today. If you look at fashion in 2010, it’s quite different than 2022. So we had to be quite accurate about it and at the same time, she had to look really lovely because that’s how she was and how she is.
BTL: With the other first ladies, you went further back in period designs.
Sejlund: It’s easier when you go further back in period with Betty Ford or Eleanor [Roosevelt]. It’s so long ago [that not] everybody recognizes the period of the ’30s [or] the ’60s. We can’t relate to those clothes in the same way that we can to something that happened 20 years ago.
BTL: How would you describe Eleanor Roosevelt’s style?
Sejlund: Looking at the specific time period, Eleanor was from the Depression, the ’30s. You could not wear something that was too lavish in the Depression — especially her. She would never do that. I mean, there were people starving and you did not have a huge wardrobe like the First Lady [does] now. I mean, Melania Trump never wore the same thing twice. That’s completely different [with] Eleanor, [who unlike] Betty and Michelle Obama, uses her clothes over and over again. Eleanor had kind of a narrow wardrobe in real life; we made her wardrobe way bigger, but it’s kind of the same always. She was much more [about] brains than aware of what she was wearing. She was actually quiet [and] not that elegant. She was plump with a saggy bosom, having given birth to seven children. It’s a different body and it’s a different time.
BTL: How would you describe Betty Ford and Michelle Obama’s style?
Sejlund: [Betty] was a dancer, kind of sassy, sexy, and fun. I think her wardrobe really fits that. When we come further on, where she wears all the caftans in the late ’70s, she’s still kind of sassy. With Michelle Obama, she was so aware, because it was such a big change [in] time where everything that she wore [could be] commented on. The world right now is so based on social media that we can follow everything, every second. I don’t think that was the issue with either Betty Ford or Eleanor Roosevelt.
Michelle was like the people’s First Lady, so she was wearing something that most women could afford a lot of the time. She was wearing J. Crew, jeans, and a cardigan, not always super expensive, and quite often American designers. She would wear a beautiful gown and an expensive purse once in a while but she very often wore things like an average American could afford, which was so smart.
BTL: Let’s go through each Lady’s looks, and how you came to design them.
Sejlund: This show was such a puzzle, with 5,000 little pieces that you have to put together. We knew we were going to cut between periods of time, so we had to do that and still make it look pretty. That was a huge challenge to work within a 130-year time period, basically, when you count Eleanor when she was eight years old. I tried to put each Lady into a little color box; colors, textures, and prints. I couldn’t jump out of the box too much because then it would be so hard when we edited.
Eleanor was in the ’30s, so it was more woolly and more velvet and purple and burgundy, and pearls. The pearls are something they all wear in different time periods. Betty was [in] the ’60s and the ’70s, so full-on with the color, that kind of fresh green and orangey red and yellow. Michelle Obama was way more bold prints.
BTL: How did you discover that they each wore pearls?
Sejlund: We were looking through the images and found out they were all wearing pearls. In the ’30s and the ’60s, they are a different, dainty style, and then Michelle Obama’s are like, big and chunky. It was our fun little thing.
BTL: What were some of the challenges in getting everything just right?
Sejlund: Betty Ford is so fun and sassy and lovely, and I think Michelle Pfeiffer pulls it off so well. I personally love the ’60s and ’70s so I think it would be her wardrobe. With Betty Ford, it had to be the right [kind of] thick polyester, which was not easy to find. It’s a fun challenge to find needles in haystacks.
Eleanor Roosevelt was fantastic because those fabrics, the right silk, are so hard to get and the research was amazing. They don’t exist any longer and prints were really hard to find. We were looking online and found dresses that we took apart and remade. We bought a dress just for the fabric and then we tore it apart into like 15 pieces and made a new dress out of it because you needed the right fabric. I wish we could make those beautiful fabrics again.
BTL: What was your favorite look to design?
Sejlund: I would say Eleanor Roosevelt’s wedding dress. I’d never seen anything like it. You’d see the pictures and say, ‘what is happening in that dress?’ There were only a few formal wedding photos of Eleanor wearing the dress, where she stands alone and with Theodore Roosevelt. It’s so much and [it’s] everywhere and so special and how could we do that? We managed to buy a beautiful, old, original dress that we tore apart. We bought some vintage lace curtains and pieced it all together. It was like Cinderella with the little mice. That was amazing tailor work.
BTL: How do you work with each actor? Do you design to the actors’ body shapes?
Sejlund: The director was my dear friend, Susanne Bier, and she was like, ‘Gillian Anderson is gonna play Eleanor,’ and I’m like, ‘But Eleanor was so tall and Gillian is so teeny tiny. How are we gonna do that?’ Well, you figure it out! [laughs] We were working very closely together with the actresses, both Michelle, Viola, and Gillian to make it right. We had to find the right proportions. I couldn’t give Eleanor Roosevelt really high heels because you didn’t wear high heels in the ’30s and ’40s. So we kind of had to change a bit on the proportions where you’d find the right place to cut the line on the dress and tweak it a little. There is only so much we can do. I wish we had way more outfits for Michelle Obama with that wide belt, which she could [pull off] because she was so tall. Viola is not that tall and more lady curvy, so it didn’t work. The sheet dresses worked better so we went more in that direction. I had to go with their body and modify a little.
BTL: How did you feel after seeing your work on screen?
Sejlund: I’m quite happy that it turned out so beautiful. I was terrified because I couldn’t control how it would look in the end. There is a line through everything and I’m quite happy with the looks. This was a monster of a job and was so hard for all of us. I have to say a big “thank you” to everyone who worked on this production and made it look so beautiful.
The First Lady is now available to watch on Showtime.