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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fashion of the First Ladies

One of the things that people think of when the topic of First Ladies is broached is the inaugural gowns. And who can blame them, some of them are quite beautiful? I have found some wonderful resources online regarding First Lady Fashion, so if you can’t make it to the museums you can check it out on the web.
Inaugural Gowns - Carter [L] and E. Roosevelt [R]

The Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C. has had an exhibit on First Lady inaugural gowns for quite some time, but in recent years has added more substance to the exhibit beyond the beautiful fashions. Since 1912 they have been asking each First Lady to donate a dress that represents her, with Helen Taft being the first in that tradition. It is now a popular media event. 1964 was the first year that the Smithsonian held their public event where the First Lady attended the presentation – Mamie Eisenhower began this tradition. The short video below is one of the many documenting current First Lady, Michelle Obama, donating her Inaugural Gown to the Smithsonian.

To be sure, they have gowns and other fashion accessories from earlier First Ladies, all the way back to Martha Washington. There is some fashion accessory to represent each administration. Not every item represents a First Lady, but a person who acted as hostess (sometimes if there was not a living wife, a daughter or niece would take over the role). There are 24 gowns on display and 11 are inaugural gowns. You can see all of the gowns and accessories here.
Accessories - Monroe [L], E. Wilson [B], Cleveland [T]

As a general rule, the Smithsonian only displays one gown per First Lady, and it has tended to be the dress from the first inaugural ball if the President was in for 2 terms. The second dress is typically displayed at the individual President’s library. You can read more about the Tradition of the Gowns at the Smithsonian here.
Evening Gowns - Washington [L], Madison [C], Lincoln [R]

Another great place to check out First Lady fashion is at the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, OH. There will be another post in the future about taking a tour of the museum so keep an eye out for that. The National First Ladies’ Library recently acquired miniatures of the First Ladies inaugural gowns. These were originally created as a promotional piece for the perfume White Shoulders and they were donated to the Museum. Here is a slideshow of the pieces.

The below video takes us behind the scenes at the Smithsonian as they prepared to put the dresses back out on display in 2010. There are some historical tidbits about the different dresses provided as well.

Hope you have enjoyed learning about the fashions of the First Ladies.

Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Heather! This is an amazing and excellent post. Fashion, first lady history, it has it all. Thanks so much :)

  2. I saw this when I was in DC last time. Unfortunately, my hubby was bored by all the dresses and kind of rushed me through it but it was still really neat to see.

  3. Jenny- thanks! I had fun putting this one together. I had some of the info from my paper and then just built on it!

    Holly - It's funny, I was in this museum probably around 2000, and never saw the exhibit.


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