The First Ladies


On my recent trip to Canada and the USA I had the pleasure to visit a splendid exhibition called ‘The First Ladies at the Smithsonian’ in the National Museum of American History In Washington DC. The first ladies exhibition displayed the dresses worn by the first ladies of each presidential administration.


It was the first Smithsonian collection focused on women and the first exhibition to feature them prominently. It certainly paved the way for future collections and exhibitions about American women. The display included costumes from about 1780 – beginning with a Martha Washington silk taffeta gown and included dresses up to the present day – the latest being the vanilla white gown worn by Melania Trump.

I have included below a selection of interesting dresses I found particularly interesting. Nevertheless all the gowns I have mentioned were stunning, beautifully made and perfectly suited to it’s wearer. 

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy  1961

Jacqueline Kennedy’s State Dinner Dress – A yellow silk evening gown with an overlay of crepe chiffon designed by Oleg Cassini. Mrs. Kennedy wore the dress in 1961 for the administration’s first state dinner, for Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba.  Topping the best-dressed lists, Jacqueline Kennedy was a fashion icon. The “Jackie look,” copies of the clothes designed for her by Oleg Cassini, sold in stores across America on mannequins that resembled her. An association with the glamorous first lady was enough to sell everything from hats to costume jewellery.

I love this very elegant dress with clean simple lines  – it is certainly the epitome of style something that Jackie certainly represented in her choice of clothing. It was one of my favourite dresses.

Claudia Lady Bird Taylor Johnson 1968

Lady Bird Johnson wore this yellow satin gown and sable-trimmed coat to the 1965 inaugural balls. The White House did not normally discuss the first lady’s designers but, because of the “special occasion and intense interest” surrounding the inaugural gown, staff announced that it was designed by John Moore. Aware of the tradition of donating the dress for exhibit at the Smithsonian, Mrs. Johnson chose a simple design that she thought would age well. 

I find the colour of this dress very attractive and love the elegant simple lines. Not so keen on the fur on the sleeves of the coat dress however I am sure it was very fashionable at the time.
Nancy Reagan’s Inaugural Gown 1981 

Nancy Reagan wore this white beaded one-shouldered sheath gown of lace over silk satin to the 1981 inaugural balls. It was designed by James Galanos, who also designed the one-shouldered white gown Mrs. Reagan wore to her husband’s first gubernatorial inaugural ball. In interviews, Galanos said that he wanted to make Mrs. Reagan look glamorous, elegant and in keeping with the new formality.

This is a stunning gown with very pretty sparkling beads – I am sure a lot of work has gone into the detail. I would love to wear it myself!

Mamie Doud Eisenhower 1957 

Mamie Eisenhower’s Evening Gown, Purse, and Shoes. A rose-coloured silk damask ball gown designed by Nettie Rosenstein and worn to a 1957 state dinner at the British Embassy. The ensemble included a matching purse and shoes.

Mamie Eisenhower loved clothes. She patronised well-known designers but was just as happy buying mail-order hats and ready-made dresses from discount department stores. Women copied the “first lady look” and Mrs. Eisenhower’s charm bracelets, close-fitting hats, and “Mamie pink” colour preference became fashion trends. 

Personally I would prefer a symmetrical skirt however I really love the colour and shape of the rest of the dress and the fabric – the neckline and sleeves are gorgeous as well.

 Melania Trump’s 2017

This is the most recent gown enshrined in the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection of past inaugural frocks.

At a ceremony at the National Museum of American History in Washington on Friday, Trump formally handed over what the White House called her “couture” inaugural dress: A vanilla silk crepe off-the-shoulder gown with a slit skirt, a ruffled accent from neckline to hem and a claret ribbon around the waist.

I think it is a very elegant dress and the ruffle does add something special plus the very thin red ribbon does emphasis Melania’s slim waist.

Michelle Obama 2009

Michelle Obama wore this one-shouldered white silk chiffon gown embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centres to the 2009 inaugural balls. It was designed by Jason Wu. No details of the dress were released before the balls and Wu did not know that Mrs. Obama had selected his design, which he intended to symbolise hope, until he saw it on television. With the gown, Mrs. Obama wore shoes by Jimmy Choo and diamond earrings, bracelets, and a ring designed for her by Loree Rodkin.
In the photograph and in the display is looked a very creamy almost pale yellow colour almost yellow.  I know from photographs of her wearing the gown it looked very white at the time – perhaps the tulle fabric has darkened.  I love the sparkling crystals on the floaty fabric  – Michelle looked really stunning in the dress.  

Laura Bush 2001

Laura Bush wore this ruby-red gown of crystal-embroidered Chantilly lace over silk georgette to the 2001 inaugural balls. A sketch and description of the dress was released to the press two weeks before the inauguration. The dress was designed by fellow Texan Michael Faircloth. Some reports speculated that Faircloth encouraged the normally conservative Mrs. Bush to choose the brilliant colour.
The bright red colour is gorgeous and the beading lavish.

Hillary Clinton 1993

Hillary Clinton wore this violet beaded lace sheath gown with iridescent blue velvet silk mousseline overskirt to the 1993 inaugural balls. The dress was designed by Sarah Phillips and made by Barbara Matera Ltd., a New York theatrical costume maker.
This dress is beautifully fitted, has fabulous decoration of lace and lavish beading and an elegant sparkling belt.  I am sure it was a real hit at the time.

Barbara Bush 1989

Barbara Bush wore this royal-blue gown with velvet bodice and asymmetrically draped silk satin skirt to the 1989 inaugural balls. The dress was designed by Arnold Scaasi, who noted that Mrs. Bush was suddenly, “the most glamorous grandmother in the United States.” 
Personally I am not keen on the draped satin skirt (this was a popular style of the time) however the dress is a beautiful colour, the midnight blue  velvet is very beautifully fitted and the gown looked amazing on Barbara.

Rosalynn Carter 1977

Rosalynn Carter wore this gold-embroidered sleeveless coat over a gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown to the 1977 inaugural balls. It was designed by Mary Matise for Jimmae and purchased through Jason’s in Americus, Georgia. Mrs. Carter’s decision to wear the same dress that she had worn to the 1971 ball celebrating her husband’s inauguration as governor of Georgia raised questions. News stories discussed the first lady’s responsibility to the American fashion industry, the symbolism of the inaugural gown, and Americans’ desire for glamour in the White House.
I love this outfit – a very pretty floaty dress with a beautiful brocade matching coat over the top.  I love the gold beading and braiding that makes it so special. 

Betty Ford 1975

Betty Ford wore this pale-green sequined chiffon gown embroidered in a chrysanthemum pattern to state dinners at the White House for the shah of Iran in 1975 and for King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1976. The dress was designed by Frankie Welch. Since there were no formal inaugural celebrations when Gerald Ford became president, Mrs. Ford chose this dress, in her favourite shade of green, to represent her in the Smithsonian’s collection.
This fitted coat/dress is a lovely shape and very nicely fitted.  A very pretty shade of mint with beading detail  – it is also very elegant.
I really enjoyed this exhibition and I have to say my particular favourite was the dress worn by Nancy Reagan – it has very clean simple lines made very special by the amazing beading and sparkling jewels.
The whole exhibition was absolutely wonderful and if you can get to see it please go – it is an opportunity not to be missed!

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