The Smithsonian Institution asks each first lady to donate a dress to represent her in the collection of The National Museum of American History.
As the popularity of the collection has grown, so has the ceremony surrounding the donation of the dresses. Early donations were informal affairs and often happened after the first lady had left the White House. Modern gown presentations are staged media events publicizing both the Smithsonian and the first lady.
First Lady Helen Taft enthusiastically supported the establishment of the first ladies collection. When asked to contribute a dress to the exhibition, she chose the gown she wore to her husband’s 1909 inauguration. Her choice established a precedent for future first ladies and each one since who attended an inaugural ball has donated the gown she wore to that event.
Helen Taft’s 1909 inaugural ball gown is made of white silk chiffon appliquéd with floral embroideries in metallic thread and trimmed with rhinestones and beads. It was made by the Frances Smith Company. The fabric and embroidery have become discolored, and most parts of the skirt were replaced as part of a 1940s conservation effort.
The first ladies exhibition began with a simple goal: obtaining a dress to represent the hostess of each presidential administration for a new display of historic clothing. It became an American icon and the highlight of many trips to the Smithsonian. The original Collection of Period Costumes exhibition included dresses worn by the wives of the presidents and the female relatives who sometimes served as the White House hostesses. It was the first Smithsonian collection focused on women and the first exhibition to feature them prominently. It paved the way for future collections and exhibitions about American women.
Laura Bush wore this ruby-red gown of crystal-embroidered Chantilly lace over silk georgette to the 2001 inaugural balls. Fellow Texan Michael Faircloth designed the dress.
Martha Washington wore this silk taffeta gown in the early 1780s. The silk is painted with a design of flowers, butterflies, and other insects. The collar and cuffs are reproductions.
Rosalynn Carter wore this blue chiffon evening gown and sleeveless coat trimmed with gold embroidery and braid to the 1977 inaugural balls. She wore the same dress six years earlier when Jimmy Carter became governor of Georgia. It was designed by Mary Matise for Jimmae.
Mamie Eisenhower wore this rose-colored silk damask evening gown for a 1957 state dinner at the British Embassy. Nettie Rosenstein designed the ensemble, which included a matching purse and shoes.
Grace Coolidge’s flapper-style evening dress is made of velvet-trimmed black-and-gold metallic lace over a gold lamé underdress.
Jacqueline Kennedy wore this yellow silk evening gown with an overlay of crepe chiffon in 1961 for the Kennedy administration’s first state dinner, for Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba. Oleg Cassini designed the gown.
Lady Bird Johnson in her inaugural gown, 1965
Betty Ford wore this pale-green sequined chiffon gown embroidered in a chrysanthemum pattern to state dinners at the White House for the shah of Iran in 1975 and for King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1976. The dress was designed by Frankie Welch. Since there were no formal inaugural celebrations when Gerald Ford became president, Mrs. Ford chose this dress, in her favorite shade of green, to represent her in the Smithsonian’s collection.
Pat Nixon wore this mimosa silk satin gown to the 1969 inaugural balls. Designed by Karen Stark for Harvey Berin, it was embroidered in gold and silver and encrusted with Austrian crystals
Nancy Reagan wore this white beaded one-shouldered sheath gown of lace over silk satin to the 1981 inaugural balls. It was designed by James Galanos, who also designed the one-shouldered white gown Mrs. Reagan wore to her husband’s firstl inaugural ball. In interviews, Galanos said that he wanted to make Mrs. Reagan look glamorous, “… elegant and in keeping with the new formality.”
Barbara Bush wore this royal-blue gown with velvet bodice and asymmetrically draped silk satin skirt to the 1989 inaugural balls. The dress was designed by Arnold Scassi, who noted that Mrs. Bush was suddenly, “the most glamorous grandmother in the United States.”
Hillary Clinton wore this violet beaded lace sheath gown with iridescent blue velvet silk mousseline overskirt to the 1993 inaugural balls. The dress was designed by Sarah Phillips and made by Barbara Matera Ltd., a New York theatrical costume maker.
Michelle Obama wore this one-shouldered white silk chiffon gown embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers to the 2009 inaugural balls. It was designed by Jason Wu. No details of the dress were released before the balls and Wu did not know that Mrs. Obama had selected his design, which he intended to symbolize hope, until he saw it on television. With the gown, Mrs. Obama wore shoes by Jimmy Choo and diamond earrings, bracelets, and a ring designed for her by Loree Rodkin.
Eleanor Roosevelt wore this pink rayon crepe gown trimmed with lace and sequins to the 1945 inaugural reception. It was designed by Arnold Constable.
Florence Harding’s dress features pearlized sequins on tulle and rhinestone-trimmed blue velvet ribbon. It was designed by Harry Collins.
Sarah Polk first wore this light-blue brocaded silk dress woven with a design of poinsettias in the late 1840s. It was remade as an evening gown, probably for her niece, in the 1880s.
Lucy Hayes wore this gold damask and cream satin gown to the White House New Year’s reception in 1880. It was made by Mrs. M. A. Connelly, a New York dressmaker.
Dolley Madison’s silk satin open robe is hand-embroidered with flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, and phoenixes. It is typical of the style of the late 1810s.
Mary Lincoln wore this silk taffeta two-piece dress in 1861, with an evening bodice as the top piece. The pattern of black stripes and purple flowers is woven into the silk. Later in the 19th century, the original evening bodice was replaced with this daytime bodice made of fabric taken from the skirt.
Frances Cleveland wore this silk evening gown with fur-edged hem and black-satin-and-jet trim during her husband’s second administration. It was made by Baltimore dressmaker Lottie Barton.
For a video tour of the First Ladies Exhibit at the Smithsonian click HERE . All images are the copyright of the Smithsonian Institution.
Jacqueline Kennedy is undeniably one of the greatest style icons of the last century.At one time, she was the most sought-after photograph subject in the world. With a style heavily influenced by European fashion, and her natural poise, grace and beauty, she revolutionized women’s wear in the 1950s and 60s.
Jackie had an extremely simple style and didn’t wear much jewellery. However, when she did wear accessories, they were always a reflection of her personality and never too glitzy or gaudy. Along with her large-framed sunglasses, Jackie made the three-strand pearl necklace a signature trend that women still follow today.
Jackie’s classic style consisted mostly of black and white clothing. It was her favorite look, and she was photographed wearing only black and white many times. She preferred white on the bottom (trousers or an A-line skirt) and black on the top. She understood that less is more. Her look was never cluttered or busy, and with every outfit she chose, she portrayed the message that you don’t have to wear fancy clothes to be elegant.
Wearing sleeveless tops and dresses was a bold move for the first lady. At the time, most women would never consider stepping out with bare arms, and Jackie became a trendsetter for exposed shoulders. Always paired with the appropriate accessories, Jackie’s sleeveless garments were so flattering that they moved from the realm of fashion faux pas to fashion must-have.
Scarves became one of Jackie’s best accessories, and she used them artfully in her wardrobe. She could be found wearing a headscarf paired with a fitted tee and capris on a warm day at the café, or with a scarf tied around her neck complementing a fitted dress at a political function.
Jackie Kennedy was such a style icon that her name became a code word for a complete lifestyle.
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