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History of Fashion: The First Ladies

On the third floor of the National Museum of American History in D.C. lives The First Ladies exhibition, which explores the important position of the first lady and the ways that these very different women have shaped the role.

The exhibition features more than two dozen gowns from the Smithsonian’s almost 100-year old First Ladies Collection, including those worn by Frances Cleveland, Lou Hoover, Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama. The exhibition encourages vistitors to consider the changing role played by the first lady and American women over the past 200 years. Below we take a look at 11 inaugural dresses that stood the test of time.

Michelle Obama, designed by Jason Wu, 2009

This white, one-shoulder, chiffon dress was a bold move for Michelle. It also thrust Wu, who was relatively unknown outside fashion’s inner circle, into the national spotlight.

Laura Bush, designed by Oscar de la Renta, 2005

The dress is an ice blue and silver embroidered tulle V-neck. She also wore de la Renta for a 2001 Vogue photo shoot and at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Hillary Clinton, designed by Oscar de la Renta, 1997

Clinton wore this gold lace dress in 1997, but she first met the designer at the Kennedy Center in Dec. 1993, when he pointed out that she was wearing one of his dresses, which she claims she did not realize at the time. De la Renta has described his “friend” Hillary as “a symbol of where women want to go.”

Barbara Bush, designed by Arnold Scaasi, 1989

In this royal blue gown with a velvet top and satin skirt, Bush became known as America’s “most glamorous grandmother.”

Nancy Reagan, designed by James Galanos, 1985

The designer and his staff reportedly spent over 300 hours embroidering the beads onto this gown, and some news outlets estimated that her entire outfit cost $46,000.

Rosalynn Carter, designed by Mary Matise for Jimmae, 1977

She sported a coat with gold embroidery over a sleeveless, blue chiffon gown with gold trim — the same dress she wore when her husband became governor in 1971.

Pat Nixon, designed by Karen Stark for Harvey Berin, 1969

This gold and silver embroidered gown was encrusted with Austrian crystals.

Lady Bird Johnson, designed by John Moore, 1963

Here’s how she summed up her philosophy on fashion, according to a 1964 interview: “I like clothes. I like them pretty. But I want them to serve me, not for me to serve them.”

Jackie Kennedy, designed by both Jackie Kennedy and Ethan Frankau, 1961

The design of this off-white, sleeveless, silk chiffon gown with accompanying cape was based on sketches submitted by the First Lady herself.

Mamie Eisenhower, designed by Nettie Rosenstein, 1953

This sparkling pink gown boasts 2,000 embroidered rhinestones, and her name was printed on the left instep of her Delman shoes, according to a Smithsonian.

Eleanor Roosevelt, designed by Arnold Constable, 1941

For her husband’s third inauguration, she wore a rose-white satin dress. According to a 1941 article, “To anyone fonder of clothes, her unprecedented chore might be a welcome one, but Mrs. Roosevelt cares scarcely more for sartorial nuances than Queen Mother Mary of England.”

Helen Taft, Frances Smith Company, 1909

This gown is white silk chiffon with floral embroidery with rhinestones and a bead trim. She started the tradition of First Ladies selecting their inaugural dress and then donating it to the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection.

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