As part of my own little Inauguration celebration, I’ve been looking at the Smithsonian’s collection of Inaugural ballgowns of our past and present First Ladies and one thing is clear: the lighter in color and more crystalline the fabric, the more timeless the dress. Nellie Taft, one of my very favorite First Ladies (think cherry trees, subtle support for the Suffragettes and attendance at the opposition Democratic National Convention to quell criticism of her husband) and the first to walk in the Inaugural Day parade alongside her husband and donate her ballgown to the Smithsonian, started the trend with her embellished white silk dress, and those First Ladies who chose more vibrant frocks pale by example. Certainly Mrs. Obama followed Mrs. Taft’s example with her 2009 Jason Wu gown–a century later.
Mrs. Taft in her 1909 Inaugural ballgown (Library of Congress), and the gown in the Smithsonian First Ladies Exhibition, along with the Jason Wu gown worn by Mrs. Obama in 2009. Though Mrs. Taft’s dress has discolored with time, both dresses are made of white silk chiffon.
I don’t have any historical evidence, but it seems to me that two more fashionable First Ladies were mindful of Mrs. Taft’s example when they chose their Inaugural ballgowns: Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Reagan, twenty years apart. Both ladies chose gowns that were creamy and embellished, regal and ethereal.
The Bergdorf Goodman gown of Mrs. Kennedy (1961) and the James Galanos gown of Mrs. Reagan (1981), Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.
Two First Ladies who abandoned the Taft tradition for their first Inaugural balls and then reverted to form for their second galas were Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Bush. The fashion parallels seem striking with these two ladies! Both picked lesser-known designers from their home states and bright partisan colors for their first Inaugural gowns–Democratic blue for Mrs. Clinton and Republican red for Mrs. Bush–and then chose more neutral gossamer gowns in gold and silver by Oscar de la Renta for their second balls, in 1997 and 2005, respectively, making them look above-the-fray, transcendent.
Mrs. Eisenhower’s 1953 Inaugural gown was not really neutral, but rather (and of course) pink and with a distinct 1950s silhouette. Still, I think its 2000 rhinestones render it rather regal–and it is pale pink. I think it might be my favorite, even though it is not as timeless as the columns that came before and after.
Mrs. Eisenhower’s Nettie Rosenstein Inaugural ballgown, 1953, Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.
While looking for Mrs. Johnson’s Inaugural gown, I had a happy surprise. Lady Bird wore a buttery yellow, very 1960s satin gown to the 1965 Inaugural ball, but four years earlier, just before President Kennedy’s Inauguration, she and her daughters posed in their gowns: on the right, Lynda Bird Johnson is wearing my wedding dress: the same Harvey Berin dress that I bought from a Boston vintage dealer years ago. It’s really fun to see it on her.
Lady Bird Johnson with her daughters Luci Baines Johnson, left, and Lynda Bird Johnson, right (in my dress!), 1961. Getty Images.
One last Inaugural gown: this one worn by a mere guest rather than a First Lady. Actually, I don’t think the word mere is appropriate when referring to someone who wore this gown: the “Four Leaf Clover” gown designed by Charles James for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr. to wear to the 1953 Eisenhower Inaugural ball. Too conspicuous and architectural for a First Lady, perhaps, but WOW.
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953.