National Museum of American History Expands “First Ladies at the Smithsonian”

Inaugural Gowns of 11 Modern First Ladies Including Michelle Obama Are Featured
March 8, 2010
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History expands its popular exhibition, “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian,” with a new gallery featuring 11 gowns representing first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Michelle Obama, opening Wednesday, March 10.

The new gallery, “A First Lady’s Debut,” focuses on the public introduction of 11 first ladies during the inauguration or beginning of her husband’s presidency and pulls from the press coverage that follows the incoming first lady between the election and the inauguration. Life-size photos of the women who have filled the role of first lady over the past 50 years, each one wearing her displayed gown, are featured in this gallery.

In the center of the room is a case displaying Mrs. Obama’s one-shouldered, white-silk chiffon gown embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers created by designer Jason Wu, as well as her shoes and jewelry.

“‘The First Ladies’ exhibition explores the contributions of first ladies to the presidency and American society,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “This new gallery allows us to consider the public speculation and media scrutiny that surrounds first ladies during inaugurations.”

From the Eisenhower 1953 inauguration to the 2009 Obama inauguration, the gowns are displayed in chronological order:
• Mamie Eisenhower’s 1953 pink peau de soie gown embroidered with more than 2,000 rhinestones
• Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1961 off-white sleeveless gown of silk chiffon over peau d’ange
• Lady Bird Johnson’s 1965 yellow satin gown and sable-trimmed coat • Pat Nixon’s 1969 mimosa silk satin gown with a collar, cummerbund and jacket embroidered in gold and silver and encrusted with Austrian crystals
• Betty Ford’s 1975 state dinner pale-green sequined chiffon gown embroidered in a chrysanthemum pattern (As there were no formal inaugural celebrations when Gerald Ford became president, Mrs. Ford chose this dress to represent her in the collection.)
• Rosalynn Carter’s 1977 gold-embroidered sleeveless coat over a gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown
• Nancy Reagan’s 1981 white, beaded one-shouldered sheath gown of lace over silk satin
• Barbara Bush’s 1989 royal-blue gown with velvet bodice and asymmetrically draped silk satin skirt
• Hillary Clinton’s 1993 violet, beaded lace sheath gown with iridescent blue velvet silk mousseline overskirt
• Laura Bush’s 2001 ruby-red gown of crystal-embroidered Chantilly lace over silk georgette

A separate accessories case displays the coordinating shoes, purses, gloves and jewelry worn by various first ladies. The presentation of Mrs. Obama’s gown will be featured later this spring in a video made possible by The Chubb Corporation. The new gallery concludes with reproductions of watercolor sketches by artist Anna Ruff of 14 gowns from the Smithsonian collection.

Together, the two galleries that make up “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian” showcase 24 dresses and more than 100 other objects, including portraits, White House china, personal possessions and related artifacts from the Smithsonian’s unique collection of first ladies’ materials. Among the dresses displayed in the exhibition’s first gallery are Martha Washington’s silk taffeta gown, Grace Coolidge’s flapper-style evening dress and Helen Taft’s 1909 white-silk chiffon inaugural ball gown—the first to be presented to the Smithsonian by a first lady.

The new gallery, “A First Lady’s Debut,” has been supported by a gift from the Elizabeth Carolyn Lux Foundation.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).