First Lady Fashion at the the Smithsonian

The First Ladies at the Smithsonian is an exhibit at the National Museum of American History that features 14 gowns and over 90 other objects, including china and jewelry, that have been collected by the Smithsonian over the past hundred years. According to Megan Smith,educator on the First Ladies exhibition, the gowns collected belonged not only to First Ladies but also women who acted as the official White House hostess during presidential administrations. Though most times hostesses were the wives of the president, there have been moments in our history where the president chose a family member or friend to act as his hostess. The oldest gown in the collection belongs to Martha Washington.

Martha Washington wore this silk taffeta gown in the early 1780s.

Though every presidential administration is represented in the exhibit, some of the articles of clothing donated to the Smithsonian by the First Lady or official hostess are not inaugural gowns. The Smithsonian simply requests that the First Lady donates something to represent her in the collection. However, it has become tradition for that item to be the inaugural ball gown.

Frances Cleveland wore this silk evening gown with fur-edged hem and black-satin-and-jet trim during her husband’s second administration.

The Smithsonian creates custom-made mannequins to fit and support the gown that simulates the body type of the First Lady or official hostess. Smith says, the Smithsonian does not alter the gowns.

Julia Grant wore this white silk evening gown in the early 1870s.

” Early donations were informal affairs and often happened after the first lady had left the White House. Modern gown presentations are staged media events publicizing both the Smithsonian and the first lady.”- The Tradition of the Gowns

Helen Taft in her inaugural ball gown, 1909 Courtesy of Library of Congress

First Lady Helen Taft is credited with starting the tradition of the First Lady donating the inaugural Ball gown, when she chose to donate the gown she wore to her husband’s 1909 inauguration. This set the precedent for future First Ladies. However oldest inaugural gown in the collection belonged to Andrew Jackson’s niece, Emily Donelson, who wore it to his 1829 inaugural ball.

Helen Taft 1909 inaugural ball gown is made of white silk chiffon.



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