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.
January 20th, 2013 at 10:14 am
sumptuous frock – four leaf clover!
January 20th, 2013 at 1:22 pm
Amazing isn’t it? There’s a great little cape that goes with it, also at the Met.
January 20th, 2013 at 11:28 am
wow in deed, and your wedding dress is a wow as well! I think my favourite though is Mrs Reagans dress.. the off the shoulder number.. gorgeous applique. c
January 20th, 2013 at 1:27 pm
Thanks Celi. I do think Mrs. Reagan’s dress is very elegant–you could certainly wear it today. I love my dress and it’s fun to see it in this photo–Miss Johnson wears it very well and looks quite a bit taller than I am! Mine was originally worn by a Boston bride who was actually a bit shorter than me, so my very talented tailor had to do some clever alterations.
January 21st, 2013 at 9:50 am
You know, I don’t much like the ones on top. they look good but are rough and scratchy and itchy. As you scroll down the pictures, they get better.
January 21st, 2013 at 12:02 pm
Very clever of you to save the James for last—building to the crescendo. He really was the most extraordinary designer. WOW really is the only thing one can say.
In case you haven’t seen it, this CT scan of a James gown is fairly amazing
January 21st, 2013 at 9:54 pm
Thank you so much for the link–I had not seen it. James is really amazing; I think YOU like his so much because he is an architectural designer–he’s a dress architect!
January 22nd, 2013 at 10:47 am
January 23rd, 2013 at 6:15 pm
Wow, indeed! I don’t mind color in dresses, but can see what you mean about how some dresses have aged less well than others.
May 7th, 2014 at 4:46 pm
That’s MY wedding dress, too! I have a great story about finding the Harvey Berin dress at a Salvation Army. Mine, sadly, didn’t come with the cape, but I did get it for $7.50.
May 7th, 2014 at 4:59 pm
Oh, oops! I misread – no cape for yours, either.
May 7th, 2014 at 5:15 pm
Wow, Valerie–you certainly beat my price! I’m sure you wore it well.
May 7th, 2014 at 5:21 pm
Did yours have a small train? Mine did, but it had clearly been worn outside and was damaged and grass-stained.
May 8th, 2014 at 6:56 am
No Train–the hem was a little grass-stained, but my alterations lady got everything out–and then I grass-stained it again!