First Ladies’ Dresses at the Smithsonian– lessons learned

I had the last minute opportunity to visit DC last week and since I hadn’t been there since my 6th grade field trip, I thought it was high time I checked out the capital again. Perhaps I was not walking in the right neighborhoods, but I was pretty disappointed with street life and the lack of indie bookstores, vintage shops and the whatnot. However, the museums were fantastic, and I hit between one and three a day. While on my way from the fabulous, Guggenheim-esqe Hirshhorn Museum to the spectacular Renwick Gallery, I happened to pass a sign with the now iconic white Michelle Obama inauguration gown advertising “The First Ladies At the Smithsonian” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Good fortune with me, I realized that I was only about 50 feet away from the entrance, so I popped in for a quickie.

The Smithsonian started informally but systematically collecting First Ladies’ gowns (ultimately only inaugural ball gowns) in 1912, reaching back to the early days of United States history. While the garments were originally donated informally, it has since become a media event publicizing the First Ladies and the museum, heightening the import of choosing the right gown with the right message in the first place.

SPARKLES AND THE MEDIA

I noticed that promptly in the 20th century, sparkles were incorporated into the First Ladies’ gowns. Starting with Helen Taft, rhinestones and then crystals became common embellishment on the inaugural gowns:

Helen Taft's inaugural gown, 1909

Mamie Eisenhower’s dress had 2,000+ rhinestones,

Mamie Eisenhower in inaugural gown, 1953

Jackie Kennedy’s bodice was embroidered with reflective silver thread and crystals,

John F and Jackie Kennedy, and dress detail, 1961

and Pat Nixon’s was similarly (but somehow less understated) embroidered in gold and silver and encrusted with Austrian crystals:

Pat Nixon inauguration gown and detail, 1969

I was interested to note that Betty Ford’s dress was one of the only dresses with a plunging neckline (albeit a narrow and still relatively modest one)– unwittingly foreshadowing her later public battle with breast cancer. Hers also had a racy visible front zipper (impossible to see from the photo, unfortunately) that reminded me of Schiaparelli’s playful (and saucy!) dress zippers:

Betty Ford's state dinner dress and sequins detail, 1975

Even pant-suited Hillary Clinton loaded up on glitz,

Hillary and Bill Clinton at inauguration and detail, 1993

As did Laura Bush:

Laura and George W Bush at inauguration, with gown detail, 2001

Point made, right? Like stage and burlesque performers before them, the First Ladies figured out that as images of the inaugural events were broadcast in more venues like newspapers, TV, and now blogs, standing out in a crowd is essential, and sparkles do the trick nicely. While nary a First Lady had rhinestones (much less Swarovski crystals) pre-20th century, nearly every one after 1900 did– and lots of ’em.

NANCY vs. MICHELLE: UNLIKELY TWINS

Not necessarily related to spangles (though they are present), I noticed an odd similarity between Nancy Reagan’s and Michelle Obama’s inauguration dresses. Reagan was known as a glamorous Hollywood hostess, and was the first First Lady to sport a daring one-strapped dress (risqué in tame political circles):

Nancy and Ronald Reagan before inauguration ball, 1981

Michelle Obama chose a white one-shouldered number (with crystal embellishment) as well:

Michelle and Barak Obama at inaugural ball, and dress detail, 2009

In my musing about this seemingly unlikely coincidence– that staunchly Democratic Michelle would want to emulate or imitate in any ceremonial, highly public way hard-core Republican Nancy, it occurred to me that conscious or not, these women’s husbands’ presidential terms immediately followed presidents of the extreme opposite political and social persuasions. Conservative Ronald Reagan succeeded liberal Jimmy Carter, and progressive Barak succeeded right-wing G.W. The one-shoulder strap detail is less significant here than the white, I think, as the color of truces, peaceful intents, and fresh starts. While it would might be overkill if Ronald or Barak went the full white dinner jacket route to express white knight optimism and change–

Humphrey Bogart

wives can make a bolder fashion statement on their husbands’ behalf.

RE-USING GOWNS

The final subject of the exhibition that was more subtle but nonetheless struck me as significant, was the concept of recycling gowns. The brief wall text mentioned that Rosalynn Carter wore the same dress for Jimmy’s 1977 presidential inauguration balls as she did when he was elected the the Governor of Georgia in 1971– and she got considerable flack for doing so. She was accused of failing to support American designers (still very much a touchy subject), and though America was in an economic slump of the time and her choice was a brave and poignant reflection of that, Americans nonetheless desire and expect glamorous First Ladies.

Rosalynn Carter's reused inaugural dress, 1977

As a staunch believer in second-hand, thrift, upcycling and refurbishing clothes as an environmental and creative statement, I frankly loved Rosalynn’s restraint and subtle anti-consumer message (though I readily admit she might’ve worn it for strictly sentimental reasons). I don’t actually care for the gown itself, but we’ll let that pass. Ironically, reusing dresses, refurbishing them with updated accessories, manipulating necklines and sleeves as fashions changed, was all standard practice into the early 20th century– even for women of means. One needs look no further than Sarah Polk’s dress, originally worn by her in the late 1840s but remade as an evening gown in the 1880s (the neckline would have been deepened, sleeves shortened and embellished):

Linda Polk dress 1840s, refurbished into evening gown 1880s

Conversely, Mary Lincoln wore this as an evening dress in 1861, and then later that century the original evening bodice (it’s the standard 19th century two pieces) was replaced by the daytime bodice below, made from extra skirt fabric:

Mary Lincoln evening dress

To my knowledge, neither Linda nor Mary were lambasted for their alterations. This kind of manipulation was perfectly typical behavior for pre-20th century women. Fabric was precious, and customized designs and fittings were expensive. Sweatshops and “fast fashion” didn’t exist, so it was not an embarrassment even for the First Lady of the United States to recycle her own wardrobe publicly.

Though I really breezed through the exhibition, I walked away with some interesting discoveries. Though it makes perfect sense given the ever-expanding audience of videos and photos of political events, it hadn’t specifically occurred to me that reflective embroidery and embellishments would increase in political women’s gowns, indicating an understanding of politics as performance as much as substance. This is demonstrated in Michelle and Nancy’s downright symbolic gowns, I think. Lastly, I hope that re-wearing a treasured dress is never fodder for criticism. Though I support and encourage contemporary American designers, I also encourage working with what you have in your closet– and if an old dress makes you feel special, damn it, wear it. Not as if you need an excuse, but we’re kinda in a slumping economy ourselves; consumption reduction shouldn’t be out of place for our leaders to point out.


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2 Comments

  • Sarah October 27, 2010 06.06 am

    Super fun Tove, thanks! I couldn’t get the last two photos to read on my browsers, though. Will try again later on a difference computer!

     
  • EmilyKennedy November 03, 2010 01.18 pm

    I love your observation about Nancy and Michelle following opposing party leadership and choosing more mediated palettes. Isn’t it also fascinating that Hillary wore a kind of blue (Democrat) and Laura Bush wore a bright red (Republican) at times that some political analysts have been calling the most partisan for U.S. politics in many years?

    Also, on the topic of re-wearing items that you’ve been photographed in; I love it when I see Michelle Obama doing this in the NY Magazine Obama Lookbook, or elsewhere. It gives my heart a little lift knowing that she chooses to re-wear these really barely-worn items in her closest.

    Your observations about sparkles make it so much more interesting to consider what MObama wore to host the first official State Dinner on November 24, 2009.

     

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