First Ladies of Fashion

Michelle and Barack Obama at the inaugural balls, 2009. Courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

I wrote my first blog post January 7, 2009 for the Library, Food Fit for the President, for the inauguration of the United States 44th President Barack Obama. President Lincoln is a major inspiration to the President and the inauguration contained strong themes related to Lincoln. For example, the President used Lincoln’s Bible to take his oath of office (see images at Lincoln Inaugural Bible, Chapter and Verse). I also wondered if the President would be inspired to serve some of Lincoln’s favorite dishes, such as scalloped oysters.  Presidential food is a popular topic among researchers and if you are interested in finding more resources check out our Presidential Food Guide.

For the 2013 Presidential Inauguration I am highlighting the First Ladies and their inaugural ball gowns. A BIG THANK YOU to our friend, fashion historian John A. Tiffany, who briefed me on some great moments in inaugural gown history.

Fashion is an art, but it is also an industry. The First Lady’s inaugural gown is seen by millions of people. This kind of publicity can elevate a designer to another level and these designs may also set the style for women across theUnited States.

A Brief History of ‘First Lady’

The President’s wife was not always referred to as the First Lady. From the beginning  there was debate on what to call the wife of the President. Martha Washington was often referred to as Lady Washington, but when the President was no longer in office that title was dropped. The title “Mrs. President” was more frequently used during early presidencies. This all changed following the death of Dolley Madison (wife of our fourth President) in 1849, when President Taylor referred to Mrs. Madison as “our First Lady” in his eulogy, but the term really came into popular use during the time of the Civil War. According to The Smithsonian Book of the First Ladies (1996) both the New York Herald and the Sacramento Union newspapers in 1861 referred to Mrs. Lincoln as our “First Lady” and this title has been fixed ever since.

Fashion and the First Lady

Dolley Madison was an enthusiast of French fashion; she in turn influenced American women to embrace the French designs she favored. This trend continued for many years. If you browse late 19th to early 20th century fashion magazines, such as Vogue, the fashions and designers are typically French. By the early to mid 20th century attitudes had begun to shift and American fashion designers, thanks in large part to the influence of Eleanor Lambert and contemporary First Ladies, were viewed with increasing respect and reverence. 

Mamie Eisenhower in her inaugural gown, 1953. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of American History

When I think of Mamie Eisenhower, the image “pretty in pink” comes to mind.  This may be due to the pink inaugural gown she wore in 1953, designed by the legendary American designer Nettie Rosenstein and commissioned by Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. In 1921, Rosenstein was one of the first American high fashion ready-to-wear designers to open a shop in New York under her own name. After Mrs. Eisenhower’s appearance at the inaugural ball women across America saw her as their own first lady of fashion.

Most people credit the stylish Jacqueline Kennedy with bringing high fashion to the attention of the American public. American styles of the time were often appropriations of the French. It was no secret that Mrs. Kennedy loved French couture, but as First Lady she began to embrace the American fashion scene. Her 1961 white silk inaugural ball gown was designed by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Mrs. Kennedy gave Frankau sketches with her ideas for the gown.

President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter dancing at an inaugural ball, Washington, D.C.]

One of my favorite inaugural gown stories is from Rosalynn Carter. Rather than purchase a new gown for the 1977 inaugural ball, she wore the same gown that she had worn to Governor Carter’s 1971 gubernatorial inauguration. This gown was designed by Mary Matise for Jimmae and purchased off the rack at Jason’s in Americus, Georgia. As you can imagine the press had a field day accusing Mrs. Carter of ignoring the glamorous status of the First Lady. What I love about this story is that First Lady Carter showed awareness of the current fiscal climate of the 1970’s by wearing the same dress twice, plus she bought it off the rack in her home state.

Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, full-length portrait, dancing at inaugural ball, in front of group of people

There is no shortage of exciting First Lady inaugural gown stories. Nancy Reagan selected a gown by iconic California designer James Galanos for the 1981 inaugural ball- generating controversy over the cost of the gown. And we can’t forget Barbara Bush and her iconic pearls. She was quite the opposite of the highly fashionable Nancy Reagan and, like Mrs. Carter, preferred to purchase clothes off the rack. But in 1989 Mrs. Bush was radiant in a blue velvet gown by acclaimed designer Arnold Scaasi, who dressed other First Ladies (Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush). In 1992 at the Barbara Jean store in Little Rock, Hillary Clinton, then wife of the Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, bought a suit designed by the virtually unknown Sarah Phillips to wear for the Convention. After the election, Mrs. Clinton asked Phillips to design her 1993 inaugural gown, thrusting another unknown American designer into the spotlight.

That brings us to our current First Lady, Michelle Obama, who selected a gown designed by Taiwanese born designer Jason Wu for the 2009 inaugural ball. The beauty of this story is that Mr. Wu had no idea that the First Lady had selected his gown until saw it on television. Jason Wu is now living the American Dream (designer edition).

The 2013 inauguration  is just days away and fashion aficionados like me, wait  with bated breath to see which designer’s (not to mention the style and color) gown our First Lady, Michelle Obama, will select this year.

The Library of Congress does not collect the inaugural gowns of the First Ladies; those are mostly under the care of the Smithsonian. Check out the First Ladies at the Smithsonian exhibit which highlights inaugural gowns from Mamie Eisenhower to Michelle Obama, along with other First Ladies’ fashions. The Library does have a wealth of information about the First Ladies that can be found in our collections of  photographs and prints and papers.

For other interesting information about inaugurations past, check the January/February issue of the LCM, Library of Congress Magazine.

My fellow bloggers also have inaugural blog postings this week. Check out the LC’s Blogs Oath of Office, In the Muse’s Sheet Music of the Week: Inauguration Edition, Teacher’s Taking a Closer Look Presidential Inaugurations and Beyond the Oath and Law’s Presidents, the Other National Pastime and 20th Amendment to the U.S Constitution.

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