First lady's frock

The gown Susan Corbett will wear to her husband's inaugural ball is the work of a small-town designer who sewed up the job with a bolt of beautiful fabric.

Susan Corbett and designer Richard Andries. Sketches by Nora Noone of Corbett's inaugural gown. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)

CAMP HILL - Indonesian-born designer Richard Andries wasn't too concerned about perfecting the silhouette of Susan Corbett's inaugural ball gown. That would come in time. After all, in Andries' opinion, Pennsylvania's soon-to-be first lady has the perfect build: statuesque with a narrow waist and broad shoulders.
So instead of presenting Corbett with a sketch during their first meeting in November, Andries showed her a bolt of beaded, hand-painted silk organza in warm apricot, butterscotch, milk chocolate, and mocha hues.

"I fell in love with it immediately," Corbett said after a fitting last week at women's wear boutique Andries Couture in Camp Hill. "He kept showing me other [fabrics], but this was the first one I saw and I kept going back to it."

This is how Andries, a small-town special-occasion designer, beat out a few Philadelphia stores - including inaugural go-to spot Sophie Curson in Center City - and won his biggest commission to date.

"I'm honored and privileged," said Andries.

But it wasn't just the fabric, which Andries purchased on a trip to Japan, China, and Indonesia, that moved him to designer nirvana. It was the fact that Corbett, 60, a career woman whose last job was vice president of programs and development at the Gettysburg Foundation, confided in him that gliding across the floor of the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg in a full-length couture gown on the arm of her governor husband was her sartorial dream of the most girly-girl proportions.

No designer could resist that.

"I didn't have a wedding gown made especially for me," Corbett told Andries. "So I wanted this dress to be the dress, the one."

Having grown up in rural Pine Grove, Schuylkill County, with her parents and three younger sisters, Corbett said, her family was not one of fashionistas. Taken on twice-yearly shopping trips to Philadelphia and Lancaster for new shoes and dresses, she was also the victim of an ill-fated sewing phase by her mother, in which nearly all the daughters' clothes were fashioned out of double-knit polyester - even one of Corbett's high school dance dresses.

"It was yellow and it had daisies," Corbett said.

At Tuesday's ball, things will improve a notch: She'll wear a sheer gown with bracelet-length sleeves connected to a fitted, beaded bodice with a trapezoid neckline and an A-line skirt that blossoms into a godet hemline.

"Perfect for dancing," Corbett said.

(Corbett wants to debut the gown at the ball, but she did approve the release of sketches.)

On her feet will be copper pointy-toe, slingback Carlo Fellinis, and she'll be carrying a jewel-encrusted clutch. To complement the gown, Andries fashioned a floor-length opera coat in golden silk crepe with bell sleeves and an inverted back pleat. Classy and structured.

"I like women in my designs to make grand entrances and even grander departures," Andries said.

But he didn't stop there.

Although the gown is the inauguration day's most exciting ensemble, any fashion-savvy politico knows that the first lady's coat - the one she wears while standing, smiling in the freezing cold next to her husband while he takes the oath - has meaning, too. Almost 50 years after John F. Kennedy was sworn into office, style watchers still talk about the pink Oleg Cassini coat Jacqueline was wearing. And two years ago, Michelle Obama's celery Isabel Toledo overcoat turned heads.

So last week Andries presented Corbett with a cozy, melton wool, burnt sienna A-line coat with a little bit of swing. The stunning piece features a contrasting silk lining made from fabric used for ties.

Perhaps Corbett will wear the coat over a winter-white sweater and pencil skirt ensemble, a black shift, or maybe a brown pantsuit?

"I don't know yet. . . . I didn't even know I was going to get this coat until a few hours ago," Corbett said, laughing.

Pennsylvania first ladies don't have a history of being style makers - although U.S. Judge Marjorie O. Rendell will be remembered for the silken blue frocks she wore to her husband's consecutive inaugural balls.

Nonetheless, Corbett will be under the often critical fashion spotlight. There is sure to be a case study of her wardrobe - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

"I already started throwing things away," Corbett said. "There are some things I just can't be seen in again . . . and the shoes! I had a big closet full of shoes, and I had to realize I had to give up the scuffed ones, so I replaced most of them with comfortable flats."

Although Corbett can remember having to have the short skirts and pixie haircuts of iconic 1960s model Twiggy as a young adult, after graduating from Lebanon Valley College - where she got her ears pierced - she adopted a fairly conservative professional wardrobe, first as an English teacher, and then when she moved to San Antonio, where her husband attended law school and she worked at a law office.

After 14 years as a full-time mother to son Tom and daughter Kate, Corbett returned to the workforce to take a series of positions in the nonprofit arts world, including executive director of Pittsburgh Arts and Lecturers, a nationally recognized literary arts organization.

During that time, Corbett said, she developed three wardrobes: the comfortable mom look, a collection of evening wear, and an office wardrobe that, because she was in the arts world, was a mix of tailored and bold styles. She eventually discovered secret New York sample sales, focusing on bargains and age-appropriate fare: tailored jackets and skirts, and fancy shifts.

What won't she wear?

"Absolutely no spandex. Ever."

Corbett gave up her job to help her husband, Tom, campaign, and plans to focus her attention on at-risk youth and the arts.

So, besides the shoe purge, Corbett will stay true to her classically chic tailored clothing in her role as full-time first lady, hoping to emulate both Rendell ("classy and beautiful") and former first lady Barbara Bush ("confident and age-appropriate").

As for that inaugural dress, she plans to wear it at least once more - before donating it to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission's first ladies collection in Harrisburg - to the annual Governors' Ball at the White House in February.

"If I could wear this gown, I'd wear it every opportunity I could get," she said.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or Follow her on Twitter at @ewellingtonphl.