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How the Reagan White House shaped ‘80s style

Ronald and Nancy Reagan set the tone for the extravagance and excess of the 1980s.

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Elected in 1980 and in office until 1989, Ronald Reagan’s presidency defined the ‘80s in America. After the crime, recession, oil crisis, drug use, and war that helped define the ‘60s and ‘70s, Reagan’s promise of normalcy and optimism appealed to his voters who craved change. And while it was the president who influenced politics at home and abroad, it was First Lady Nancy Reagan who masterminded the glamorous, Hollywood-influenced style of the Reagan White House.

“It was the Reagan White House that had an excessive amount of state dinners, and they were all celebrity-studded,” says Tim Gunn in the new CNN Original Series, American Style. Under the Reagan presidency, the White House became Hollywood’s East Coast home. The Reagans met in 1949 amid Hollywood’s Red Scare, during which artists accused of having Communist ties or sympathies were blacklisted from employment. Nancy (née Davis), then a young actress, had been confused for a leftist theater actress with the same name. She met with Ronald, then the president of the Screen Actors Guild, to help clear her name.

As first lady, Nancy “personified this kind of new American aristocracy that was rooted in the Republican party...Southern California, [and] Hollywood,” says Dr. Eric Avila, professor of Chicano Studies at UCLA. Nancy famously spent $25,000 on her inaugural wardrobe and $200,000 on new china for the White House when she first arrived in Washington, earning her the nickname “Queen Nancy.” She responded to her critics unapologetically, saying, “Am I spending too much money? Seriously, I really haven’t changed my habits that much. I am just being myself.”

In contrast to her predecessor, Rosalynn Carter, who favored shirtdresses in muted colors, Nancy famously sported the color red. She wore it so frequently that the media dubbed her signature shade “Reagan Red,” and she changed the connotation around the color from that of communism to that of Republicanism.

The Reagan White House certainly set the tone for the extravagance and excess of the ‘80s, but the decade also saw many more defining style moments from pop, rap, and hip-hop icons, American fashion designers, workout culture, and Wall Street alike.

For more, watch American Style, the new CNN Original Series produced by Vox Entertainment in collaboration with Doc Shop Productions. The four-part docuseries examines how the evolution of America’s style mirrors the political, social, and economic climate through the decades, from the 1940s to today.

Tune in on Sunday, January 13 at 9 pm ET and Sunday, January 20 at 9 pm ET on CNN.