Dancing Through History With First Ladies' Gowns Every 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.

Dancing Through History With First Ladies' Gowns

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The biggest prom in the country occurs every four years right here in the nation's capital. Inaugural balls bring out the happy winners, the political bigwigs and also a gown on the first lady that will become a part of history. A new exhibition at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History displays some of those gowns.

And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg took her dance card to the show.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: For one evening, The Washington Post observed, the inaugural ball gown is the most important dress in the country. What did she wear? How did she look?

LISA KATHLEEN GRADDY: She became a fashion icon, insanely popular.

STAMBERG: Lisa Kathleen Graddy curated the first ladies show.

GRADDY: People could not get enough of her clothes and her activities, and her likes and dislikes. They copied her hair. They copied her clothes.

STAMBERG: Surprise. It's not Michelle Obama, not Jacqueline Kennedy. In the late 1800s, Grover Cleveland's wife, Frances, was the Jackie of her day. Mrs. Cleveland's inaugural gown was really a blouse and skirt; fancy peach velvet top, creamy embroidered bottom.

Some fashion-forward young friends I took to the show had quick reactions.

ERIN STEVENS: The shape of it is really simple and it's elegant. I like the beadwork going on the bottom.

STAMBERG: Erin Stevens is studying textile design at Philadelphia University. Erin closely inspected the gown Mrs. Kennedy wore to her first White House State Dinner in 1961. Long yellow silk, one-shoulder...

STEVENS: I don't know. It doesn't match my aesthetic but it's simple and classic and...

STAMBERG: In other words, you wouldn't buy it.




STAMBERG: Young'uns can be tough.

DANIELLE BRESLOW: They're so poofy.

STAMBERG: Eleven-year old Danielle Breslow, on Mamie Eisenhower's sleeves - little cap sleeves on her 1957 red evening gown.

EDEN BRESLOW: They should be longer.

STAMBERG: Danielle's twin sister, Eden, again with the sleeves.

STEVENS: I like the wide-set sleeves and how they kind of come mid-shoulder.

STAMBERG: Design student Erin Stevens.

STEVENS: Don't know about the rest of the dress though.


STAMBERG: Everybody's got an opinion. And that's the thing about first lady clothes. I mean we care, but why?

Curator Lisa Graddy:

GRADDY: We care because we want to feel that we have a connection with the first lady. Especially, first lady is person whose job it is to go out and make a connection with the public. Be the caring face of the White House.

STAMBERG: Yeah. Also, because clothes are always more than just clothes. They're windows onto personality, an era, a value system, an attitude. In a video at the Smithsonian, Michelle Obama says an inaugural gown, in particular, puts us right in the moment; gets us wondering about intimate details of one evening, one woman.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Like, how does she feel in the dress? Did her feet hurt in the shoes?


OBAMA: How many times did her husband step on that train?


STAMBERG: Mrs. Obama says she felt luscious in her gown.

D. BRESLOW: It's white with little like fuzzy circles on it.

STAMBERG: The ever-stylish 11-year-old Breslow twins.

Little puffy things...

D. BRESLOW: And they're…

STAMBERG: They look like little cotton balls.

D. BRESLOW: Yeah. And they're almost sequins, like they kind of look like spiders on it.

STAMBERG: Little pieces of glitter-strewn.

D. BRESLOW: Yeah, it's very pretty.


STAMBERG: Danielle gives it a grade of nine. Eden says nine and a half. Danielle is more demanding.

Again, the idea that everyone has an opinion. And curator Lisa Graddy says the dress a first lady picks will be judged through the ages.

GRADDY: Choosing an inaugural gown, I can't imagine the pressure. This is the photo that will follow you for the rest of your life.

STAMBERG: Walking past mannequins in their dimly lit display cases, it's easy to spot the, ooh, I wish.

E. BRESLOW: That's like a perfect one for me.

STAMBERG: Nancy Reagan's 1981 inaugural dress is a knockout; Hollywood glamorous, one-shouldered sheath, beaded, white lace over silk satin. The twins would wear it. And they'd wear Barbara Bush's dark blue velvet and satin 1989 inaugural gown. Odd, because it's appropriately matronly for the white-haired Mrs. B, and it has those dreaded poofy sleeves.

Curator Graddy thinks the dress reminds the girls of Snow White. Erin Stevens and, yes, this reporter, too - I confess - have a different favorite: A simple spill of slate blue silk crepe, sewn-in waistline, no sleeves, gracefully pleated column.

STEVENS: Yeah, I think that is the one I could most likely see myself wearing.

STAMBERG: The real wearer in 1933, the middle of the Depression was almost six feet tall, and rarely considered stylish - Eleanor Roosevelt.

GRADDY: Isn't that a beautiful dress? I love this dress. I was so excited to put it on view. Some days, it's good to be curator.

STAMBERG: There's always more to a gown than the gown itself. 1933 was Franklin Roosevelt's first inauguration. There was a charity ball. Eleanor went alone. The president pleaded pressing work. In 1937, there was a concert, not a ball. And during World War II, all inaugural activities were scaled back. The Roosevelts just gave simple post-parade receptions.


STAMBERG: Videos throughout the first ladies' exhibition show them dancing at the balls, reflecting on the event. There's also White House china on display, Dolly Madison's painted fan, a White House front door lock and key removed during a renovation.

But it's the gowns that grab attention, for their style as well as their stories. From the mid-19th century, a purple velvet that belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln.

GRADDY: This was actually made by Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who had bought her own freedom, set up a dressmaking business in Washington and became Mrs. Lincoln's closest confidante.

STAMBERG: Again, it's not a dress. It's a skirt with two bodices. The one for daytime has long sleeves and a high neck. The evening top is different.

GRADDY: Much lower neckline, much less bodice...

STAMBERG: Lace on the sleeves.

GRADDY: Lace on the sleeves. So, to get ready for evening you can just take off the bodice, freshen up, redo your hair and put on the new bodice.

STAMBERG: The outfit is from the 1861 social season, purple velvet. After her husband was killed in 1865, Mary Lincoln never wore color again. She gave those clothes away, mostly to relatives. So you can see where the purple at the Smithsonian American History Museum was altered by its next owner. The waist was taken in some, fabric removed from the skirt.

Pieces of history, revealing some tragic and exuberant moments in first family lives. What they wore when, and why they wore it.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.


GREENE: And you can see some of those first ladies' gowns at our website, NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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