Dancing Through History With First Ladies' GownsEvery four years in January, Washington plays host to the country's biggest "prom." Inaugural balls bring out happy winners, administration bigwigs and a gown — on the first lady — that will become part of history. A Smithsonian exhibition displays some of those gowns.
Grover Cleveland's wife, Frances, was a fashion icon during the late 1800s and considered the Jackie Kennedy of her day. Her inaugural gown was more of a two-piece ensemble — an elegant floral chine skirt and a peach velvet bodice crafted by House of Doucet in Paris.
A fan of elegant style, Jackie Kennedy wore a pale, yellow silk evening gown to a White House state dinner in 1961 honoring Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba. Her one-shouldered gown, designed by Oleg Cassini, incorporates elegant details such as a crepe chiffon overlay and a belted sash.
Mamie Eisenhower's red evening gown was designed by Nettie Rosenstein and worn to a 1957 state dinner at the British Embassy. The silk damask gown is noted for its small cap sleeves and included a matching purse and shoes.
Michelle Obama's 2009 inaugural gown, designed by Jason Wu, echoes her trademark style. The one-shouldered gown is crafted from white silk chiffon with small details such as organza flowers and Swarovski crystal centers. In a video at the Smithsonian, she says an inaugural gown, in particular, puts us right in the moment.
Nancy Reagan's 1981 inaugural dress exudes Hollywood glamour. The one-shouldered sheath features white lace over silk satin and beaded details. The gown, designed by James Galanos, was paired with beaded shoes by David Evins and a purse designed by Judith Leiber.
Barbara Bush's dark blue velvet and satin 1989 inaugural gown combines a velvet bodice with an asymmetrical draped satin skirt. The matronly gown was designed by Arnold Scassi, and Bush wore her signature pearls and a purse by Judith Leiber to complete the look.
A favorite among the inaugural gowns is one worn by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933. The slate-blue silk evening gown designed by Sally Milgrim is simple with a gracefully pleated column and sewn-in waistline. It also features an embroidered leaf-and-flower design in gold thread.
Mary Todd Lincoln's mid-19th century gown is accentuated by its lush purple velvet and mother of pearl buttons. It was thought to have been worn during the winter social season and was made by a slave named Elizabeth Keckley. After buying her freedom, Keckley set up a dressmaking business and became one of the first lady's closest confidantes.
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Every four years in January, Washington, D.C., plays host to the country's biggest "prom." Inaugural balls bring out happy winners, administration bigwigs and a gown — on the first lady — that will become a part of history.
An exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History displays some of those gowns. NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg took her dance card to the show.