Written By: Eliza Berman

Michelle Obama probably has a long list of things she’d like to be remembered for like her initiatives to combat childhood obesity and promote higher education before she’s remembered for her sense of style. But with great responsibility comes great clothing, and the First Lady will certainly go down as the most fashionable woman in the White House since Jacqueline Kennedy.

Obama is known for choosing the patterned dress over the more subdued pantsuit, for baring her toned arms and perish the thought even wearing shorts. And there are some who argue that the choices she makes transcend personal expression and petty analysis and carry a certain amount of cultural significance.

“For some reason in this country there’s this false notion that style and substance have to occupy two separate worlds,” said fashion journalist Kate Betts in an interview with CNN, “and I think she’s proving that that’s wrong.”

According to Betts, author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, Obama’s style choices convey comfort (the occasional flats), confidence (feminine florals) and relatability (she shops at J. Crew). Her effortless looks, Betts wrote in the New York Times, make it “hard to imagine that there had ever been any dress code for her position.”

As these photos by LIFE photographers show, there hasn’t exactly been a dress code, though styles have historically erred on the conservative side (in terms of hem lines, not party lines). The first ladies’ fashions have both evolved with popular trends and helped to inspire them. Furs, seen on Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson, have fallen out of favor in recent decades. Hats, from Truman’s rather vertical design to Kennedy’s pillbox style, are infrequently sported by recent first ladies. Leather, with the exception of Nancy Reagan, shown in 1968 before her First Lady days, has been far from a staple, whereas the simple pearl necklace continues to be a timeless, nonpartisan classic.

While Kennedy’s style was described by LIFE in 1961 as having “an almost deliberate plainness,” Obama does not shy away from a hint of flourish here and there. But she’s certainly not the first to indulge in a bit of flair. When working with a designer on her dress for the inauguration in 1953, Mamie Eisenhower had a few extra requests. “She specified pink and asked for some additional glitter.” Because even the White House no, especially the White House can use a little sparkle now and then.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1937

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1937

Pictures Inc. The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1937

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1937

Thomas D. McAvoy The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942

David E. Scherman The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Bess Truman, 1946

Bess Truman, 1946

Marie Hansen The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Bess Truman, 1946.

Bess Truman, 1946

George Skadding The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Bess Truman, 1949

Bess Truman, 1949

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Mamie Eisenhower, 1948

Mamie Eisenhower, 1948

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Mamie Eisenhower, 1953

Mamie Eisenhower, 1953

Nina Leen The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Mamie Eisenhower, 1958

Mamie Eisenhower, 1958

Ed Clark The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy - 1961

Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy – 1961

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jackie Kennedy, 1960

Jackie Kennedy, 1960

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jackie Kennedy, 1962

Jackie Kennedy, 1962

Art Rickerby The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jackie Kennedy, 1962

Jackie Kennedy, 1962

Art Rickerby The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Jackie Kennedy, 1962

Jackie Kennedy, 1962

Art Rickerby The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Lady Bird Johnson, 1961

Lady Bird Johnson, 1961

Hank Walker The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Lady Bird Johnson, 1964

Lady Bird Johnson, 1964

Stan Wayman The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Lady Bird Johnson, 1964

Lady Bird Johnson, 1964

John Dominis The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Pat Nixon, 1952

Pat Nixon, 1952

Ralph Morse The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Pat Nixon, 1958

Pat Nixon, 1958

Hank Walker The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Pat Nixon, 1968

Pat Nixon, 1968

Arthur Schatz The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Pat Nixon, 1972

Pat Nixon, 1972

John Dominis The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Betty Ford, 1973

Betty Ford, 1973

Alfred Eisenstaedt The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Rosalynn Carter, 1971

Rosalynn Carter, 1971

Stan Wayman The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Nancy Reagan, 1966

Nancy Reagan, 1966

Bill Ray The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Nancy Reagan, 1967

Nancy Reagan, 1967

Fred Lyon The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Nancy Reagan, 1968

Nancy Reagan, 1968

Arthur Schatz The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Barbara Bush, 1971

Barbara Bush, 1971

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Barbara Bush, 1971

Barbara Bush, 1971

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Hillary Clinton, 1969

Hillary Clinton, 1969

Lee Balterman The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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