Smithsonian Accepts Michelle Obama’s Inaugural Ball Gown

March 8, 2010
First Lady Michelle Obama formally presented the gown she wore to the 2009 inaugural balls to the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection Tuesday, March 9, during a ceremony at the National Museum of American History. The gown will be displayed in the center of a new gallery addition to the museum’s popular exhibition, “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian.” The new gallery, “A First Lady’s Debut,” opens to the public March 10.

The one-shouldered, white-silk chiffon gown, created by designer Jason Wu, is embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers.

For decades, the First Ladies Collection has been one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian Institution. The original first ladies exhibition of 1914 was the first display at the Smithsonian to prominently feature women. The exhibition itself has changed in size, location, style and story several times over the years.

“Today Michelle Obama continues a nearly century-long tradition that is important to American history and beloved by the public,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “The donation of an inaugural gown is a long-held tradition and the most visible of the objects our historians collect to document and explore the contributions of first ladies to the presidency and American society.”

“When we look at the dress that Jackie Kennedy wore 50 years ago, or the one that Mary Todd Lincoln wore 100 years before that, it takes us beyond the history books and the photographs and helps us understand that history is made by talented people,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “The dress I donated today, made by Jason Wu, is a masterpiece. It’s simple, it’s elegant and it comes from the brilliant mind of someone who is living the American Dream.”

Beginning with Mamie Eisenhower, the new gallery focuses on each first lady’s public introduction during the inauguration or beginning of her husband’s presidency and includes contemporary accounts of initial impressions about each woman and the role she might play in the White House. “A First Lady’s Debut,” features life-size photos of the 11 women who have filled the position over the past 50 years, each one wearing her displayed gown.

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 inaugural ball gown—the first to be presented to the Smithsonian by a first lady.

The exhibition is divided into four main sections: the evolution of the First Ladies Collection, the tradition of the inaugural gown, a first lady’s contribution to the presidency and American society and the public debut of America’s more recent first ladies.

“The First Ladies at the Smithsonian” exhibition gallery opened in December 2008 and was made possible by major support from Biography Channel. 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).