First Ladies Share Stories

Old State House Museum - Monday, September 14, 2015

Arkansas first ladies join forces to save exhibit of historic gowns,share stories behind their inaugural looks

Tuesday last day to buy tickets for restoration fundraiser

Like sorority sisters at a reunion, these ladies reminisce and catch up when they get together. They are members of a small sorority of sorts, but there were no rush parties, no pledging – they came to this sisterhood on the campaign trail.

They are Arkansas’s first ladies, past and present. And on this summer day, they’ve gathered at the Governor’s Mansion for a magazine photo shoot.

As they take their seats in a parlor, Ginger Beebe turns slightly to her left to chat with current first lady Susan Hutchinson seated at one end of the sofa. Next to Hutchinson on the Queen Anne sofa sit Betty Tucker and Gay White, who have also been instructed by the photographer to chat – not a problem as the women fall into easy conversations.

Party affiliations don’t matter here. What matters is their common goal: raising money to save a beloved museum exhibit to which each is personally connected.

At the Old State House Museum, these women’s gowns are part of the largest exhibit of its kind in the nation. With formalwear and associated artifacts dating back to the 1840s, some of the historic treasures are bound to need some restoration.

“We want to conserve the gowns and update the exhibit, but restoring historic artifacts requires careful consideration. Unfortunately, that can be costly,” said Bill Gatewood, director of the Old State House Museum, a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. “Our first ladies coming together to host a fundraiser will enable us to get the work done without spending taxpayer dollars.”

Including Susan Hutchinson, the current governor’s wife, the roster of the state’s first ladies includes 46 women. Each has had her own platform – her own cause to champion. Hutchinson, for example, works to raise awareness of and support for domestic violence prevention.

At noon on October 6, some of these women will return to their former address at 1800 Center St., with Hutchinson as the gracious lady of the house where she’ll host “Lunch on the Lawn” to raise money for the gown restoration project. Tickets for the event are $150 each and can be purchased by calling 501-664-1879. Seating is limited.

Although the road to the inaugural ball took each woman on a slightly different path, one person was a recurring figure along the way for several. Helena-based designer Helen Benton created gowns for Hutchinson, Janet Huckabee and Betty Tucker among others.

“Helen is so talented and she was able to get to know me and get a feel for what I might like and she came up with an incredible design,” Huckabee said. “I would say that the fabric was the greatest feature of my dress. I wanted Arkansas red to be used and Helen found a unique red-and-gold fabric that was beautiful and she crafted a one-of-a-kind gown for me.”

Tucker said Benton purchased the fabric for her gown from Europe, adding that the gown was more elaborate than the formalwear she generally chooses.

“The incredible silk tapestry in the skirt was my favorite feature of the gown,” she said. “I chose my dress knowing that I would donate it to the Old State House Museum. I wore it only once after the inaugural ball to a dinner at the White House.”

Gay White used Rohn Muse of Little Rock to design her gown. Barbara Pryor explained that the chiffon gown she wore “was a gift from Roslyn and Merritt Fruhman of Pine Bluff. They had it designed in New York by the House of Richilene.”

The gown with perhaps the most amusing history belongs to Betty Bumpers.

"I shopped around a bit, but my sister, Maggie Schaffer, had a formal gown that I really liked. I didn’t find anything I thought was as pretty as hers, so I borrowed it,” she said. “So then she had to buy a gown to wear to the inaugural ball.”

Each gown on exhibit at the museum represents the unique sense of style of the first lady who donated it. While each said it wasn’t difficult to maintain her own sense of personal style, several pointed out the gowns of other first ladies that they loved – second to their own gown.

For example, Pryor and Bumpers chose first lady Mabel Thomas Martineau.

“The apricot silk and velvet gown was designed in Paris, France. It had an uneven hemline and was decorated with iridescent beads, sequins and pearls. It was unique and beautifully designed,” Pryor said.

Hutchinson pointed out the gown worn by Gay White.

“Hers was the first I ever read about in the paper,” Hutchinson said. “And the stunning embellishment of the sequined diamond shapes makes it extraordinary.”

White knew she wanted to wear a white gown.

“My husband loved me to wear white,” she explained. “The beaded diamond-shaped designs were my favorite part about the gown. They represent Arkansas, the Diamond State.”

Today, the former first ladies are all content to have little need for such formal wear. When asked about the favorite pieces in their closets now, the answers range from simple black pants to a Razorback shirt and a comfy robe.

With her answer to the question, Hutchinson expresses the shared reflection that first ladies aren’t just about fashion. They also have an opportunity to influence the social consciousness of their state.

“The favorite piece in my closet today is a blue dress, the color of domestic abuse prevention,” Hutchinson said. “Whenever I’m wearing it, people are reminded that the exploitation of children must stop and they can help by calling the abuse hotline (800-482-5964) and donating to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Arkansas, which has chapters around the state.”

To buy tickets to the First Ladies’ lunch on Tuesday, October 6 and help preserve the Old State House’s collection of gowns, please contact Sammye Johnston at (501) 664-1879 or [email protected]