The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

On portraits of Clinton and Monica’s blue dress

Five years ago in Vanity Fair, Monica Lewinsky wrote that it was time metaphorically “to burn the beret and bury the blue dress,” those cultural reminders of her dalliance as an intern with President Bill Clinton. Their clandestine and intermittent affair at the White House began in 1995 and nearly cost him the presidency.

Lewinsky once was photographed wearing a beret and hugging Clinton at a rope line outside the White House, before their scandal broke in 1998. Her navy blue dress from the Gap was far more infamous. Semen stains on the dress provided evidentiary proof that Clinton had lied in a deposition about their sexual dalliance, lies that led to his impeachment in 1998 on counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

In the 20 or so years since, the blue dress has become an object of lasting popular fascination — an emblem of Clinton’s recklessness and artifact of the scandal of sex and lies that rocked and divided the country.

Bury the blue dress?

It has become too embedded in popular consciousness for such a fate.

That much was clear when news spread this month about Parsing Bill, a bizarre portrait of Clinton that serial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had displayed in his Manhattan townhouse. The portrait showed Clinton clad in red pumps and a blue dress and pointing at the viewer.

Clinton was a friend of Epstein, a wealthy money manager found dead three weeks ago in a New York City jail cell, where he was being held without bond on criminal sex-trafficking charges.

Parsing Bill was painted in 2012 by Petrina Ryan-Kleid, then a student at the New York Academy of Art. In an email interview with the ArtNetNews website, Ryan-Kleid confirmed the blue dress was a reference to the garment made infamous in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

“It was just a silly school artwork that was supposed to show, pictorially, the messages we are bombarded with in regards to these presidents,” Ryan-Kleid told ArtNetNews.

Petrina Ryan-Kleid, War Games (2012)

War Games (Petrina Ryan-Kleid)

She painted a companion piece called War Games that depicted President George W. Bush looking goofy and playing on the Oval Office floor with blocks and paper airplanes. “Neither painting,” she said, “should be taken literally.”

Ryan-Kleid also said that Parsing Bill was sold for about $1,300 at a fundraiser in 2012 for Academy of Art. She said she was unaware that Epstein had acquired the painting — news of which brought to mind another strange portrait of Clinton, an official portrait commissioned years earlier.

In it, artist Nelson Shanks had slyly painted a shadowy reminder of Lewinsky’s blue dress.

The portrait was unveiled in 2006 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Shanks kept silent about the shadow of the blue dress until giving an interview to a Philadelphia newspaper in 2015. He said then the portrait’s shadow was meant as “a bit of a metaphor” for Clinton’s presidency, “in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.”

Shanks was further quoted as saying:

“The reality is he’s probably the most famous liar of all time. He and his administration did some very good things, of course, but I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind and it is subtly incorporated in the painting.”

AHe added: “The Clintons hate the portrait.”

Far from being buried, the blue dress lives on as a peculiar reminder of a scandal that won’t go away, the popular memory of which is from time to time refreshed and renewed.

Another renewal is to take place next year, when the scandal is to be dramatized in the FX cable-television series, American Crime Story. The limited series, titled Impeachment, is to premiere in 13 months, just as the 2020 presidential election campaign enters its final weeks.

Lewinsky is to be a producer.


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