So great was the age difference between Grover and Frances Cleveland that many initially assumed that the President’s 1885 marriage proposal was intended for her mother Emma. Cleveland had, after all, partially raised Frances and was the executor of her late father’s estate. The public was soon grateful that their assumptions were wrong. As soon as the 21-year-old Frances married the 49-year-old President in what is still the only Presidential White House wedding, the American public beheld its next First Lady fascination.
Their June 2, 1886, wedding was a grand affair that captivated the nation. Frances wore an ivory satin gown so stiff that it could stand up on its own. At the time, the Washington Post reported, “The bride wore an enchanting white dress of ivory satin, simply garnished on the high corsage with India muslin crossed in Grecian folds and carried in exquisite falls of simplicity over the petticoat. The orange blossom garniture, commencing upon the veil in a superb coronet, is continued throughout the costume with artistic skill. She carried no flowers and wore no jewelry except an engagement ring, containing a sapphire and two diamonds.” The newly-minted First Lady, who is also the youngest ever, was soon nicknamed “Frank” or “Frankie” by the press, names she disliked. Newspapers continued to exploit her, the most famous example of which being this:
There is also a great story of how Frances Cleveland unwittingly expedited the demise of the bustle dress in either the late 1880’s or mid-1890’s (she was First Lady from June 1886 to March 1889 – she married the incumbent President in the White House and he was defeated for re-election – and then returned from March 1893 to March 1897 when he came back to defeat Harrison in their second face-off election and served a second full, though non-consecutive term.) In any event, as the young bride of a President and then as a young mother of three young daughters (one of whom was the only child of a President actually born in the White House) she was enormously popular and her clothing style was copied by many other women. Two reporters in Washington during the summer apparently were hard-pressed for a breaking-news story and completely made up the claim that Mrs. Cleveland didn’t like the bustle and would no longer wear it when the forthcoming social season began that fall. The story moved fast – and women by the thousands apparently abandoned the bustle too. (National First Ladies’ Library)
Though that story was fabricated, she did stir up her own fashion brouhahas. Frances favored gowns that showed off her bare neck, shoulders and arms, which alarmed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They rallied their ranks and issued a petition asking her to stop wearing these dresses because it corrupted the morals of young women who copied her. She ignored the petition. Others who were less scandalized by her copied her every move, which included shaving the napes of their necks in order to perfectly replicate her hairstyle. Photos and drawings of her likeness were used without her permission to sell products like perfume, playing cards, liver pills, and underwear. Her and her husband’s residence in an upper Georgetown area even inspired the neighborhood’s name–Cleveland Park.