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A Fashionable History of First Ladies on Inauguration Day

“People have been watching the first lady and what she wears since Martha Washington,” says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of American political history, reform movements, and women’s political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. For more than a hundred years, the institution has worked to conserve and restore fashions worn by the first ladies. The National Museum of American History has lured museumgoers with its display of inaugural gowns since the galleries were set up in 1912.


“People have always had an opinion about [their clothes], and that’s something we’ve tried to address in the exhibition,” she says. “Why do we care what the first lady wears? She is considered to be the first lady of American society. 

She’s going out and representing us across the country and around the world, so people tend to feel that they have a right to have an opinion.” Since 1789, the fabric, construction, origin, and symbolism behind the clothes worn by presidents’ wives on Inauguration Day have been read like a press release on their intentions for the four years ahead. When Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison publicized her dress as being American made, it bolstered her husband’s America-first policy. With her Eurocentric fashions, Jackie Kennedy signaled her plans to infuse the White House with high culture. And when Michelle Obama wore J.Crew gloves, she communicated that she was a first lady for the people.

A look back at many of the inauguration fashions from throughout history, below.

Mary Todd Lincoln


It’s not confirmed what, exactly, Mary Todd Lincoln wore to the inauguration celebrations, but it’s believed that she wore the same dress in this photo taken after the event. It features the highly fashionable crinoline skirt of the mid-19th century, which is festooned with ruffles and a florets pattern. She accessorized with fresh flowers, worn like a garland sash across her bodice and in her hair. Mary, notably, frequently wore clothing by designer Elizabeth Keckley—a former slave—once she was in the White House. The designer met Mary the day of her husband’s inauguration and was immediately brought on to help fashion the first lady.

Julia Dent Grant

Julia Dent Grant, wife of President Ulysses S. Grant, is remembered as a first lady who understood the significance of her role. For her husband’s second inauguration in 1873, Julia wore a metallic ivory brocade dress trimmed with lace. For added modesty, she added a point-lace fichu around her shoulders, as was the fashion.


Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

First lady to President Benjamin Harrison, Caroline had his America-first economic policy in mind when commissioning her all-American inauguration dress. The gown was made in New York City by Ghormley, Robes et Manteaux, with silk produced domestically in New York by the Logan Silk Company. She took the symbolism to heart, enlisting Indiana artist Mary Williamson to design a brocaded silk pattern that paid tribute to her husband’s grandfather President William Henry Harrison with its burr oak tree leaves. It’s filled with trimmings—the skirt is bustled, pleated, and edged with beaded fringe, and the bodice is beaded, laced, and appliqued. The more-is-more aesthetic falls in line with the Victorian tastes for all things decorative.

Caroline Harrison's gown made by Ghormley, Robes et Manteaux for the inaugural in 1889.Photo: Smithsonian Institution
Caroline Harrison's gown made by Ghormley Robes et Manteaux for the inaugural in 1889.
Ida Saxton McKinleyThe wife of William McKinley, Ida’s life was woefully filled with misfortune. She experienced the loss of several family members, including her two young daughters, and became diagnosed with chronic epilepsy that left her almost immobile. The press misunderstood her condition and scrutinized her abilities to serve as first lady, but Ida was resolute in proving herself capable. At her husband’s first inauguration in 1897, she wore an exquisite gown of pale gray brocade and added a lace fichu. Ida was a woman who appreciated handwork—on her grand tour, she witnessed the beauty of Belgian lace and became a lifelong collector of it.

Helen Taft

We have Helen Taft to thank for the preservation and conservation of inaugural gowns throughout history. She was the first to donate her gown worn in 1909, an empire-waist dress in ivory (since discolored to a buttery color) heavily beaded in sprays. In doing so, she set a precedent for all subsequent first ladies. She’s also pictured at the inaugural ceremony parade in a suit and wide-brimmed hat. Though her husband, William Howard Taft, would not be reelected, Helen’s impact was significant—she’s responsible for giving D.C. its cherry trees.

Eleanor Roosevelt

As American’s longest-running first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt held several inauguration ceremonies and balls. Prompted by the Second World War, her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the only president to serve four terms. For her first inauguration in 1933, she wore a rhinestone- and moonstone-embellished blue silk crepe dress with detachable sleeves designed by American fashion designer Sally Milgrim. At the inauguration ceremony, she wore a velvet dress and wrap, both in shades of blue, by American designer Arnold Constable.

Technically, FDR canceled official balls for his second and third inaugurations (in 1937 and 1941) because of the Great Depression and WWII, respectively, and hosted smaller events instead. Eleanor dressed both times in ivory-colored silk satin. For the fourth inauguration in 1945, she wore a long-sleeve pink rayon gown with dart and lace details, also by Constable.

Eleanor Roosevelt in her blue silk crepe dress by Sally Milgrim in 1933.
Eleanor Roosevelt in her blue silk crepe dress by Sally Milgrim in 1933.Photo: Getty Images
Eleanor Roosevelt in a Sally Milgrim dress in 1937.
Eleanor Roosevelt in a Sally Milgrim dress in 1937.Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.Photo: Edward Steichen/Getty Images
Eleanor Roosevelt in the Arnold Constable gown worn to FDR's fourth inauguration in 1945.
Eleanor Roosevelt in the Arnold Constable gown worn to FDR's fourth inauguration in 1945.Photo: Frank Scherschel/ Getty Images

Bess Truman



Known as Bess, Elizabeth Truman was a first lady who preferred to stay out of the presidential limelight, standing in stark contrast to her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt. Harry S. Truman’s first inauguration was unplanned, taking place in 1945 soon after the death of FDR. For his second inauguration in 1949, the president and the first lady celebrated the affair fully with a series of elaborate and well-produced events. At one, she wore a dark-colored gown with a floral brooch and fur coat. Their daughter, Margaret, wore a diaphanous tulle gown.

Mamie Eisenhower

Just before Jackie wore pink, so too did Mamie Eisenhower. At the first inauguration for her husband, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1953, she wore a peau de soie silk dress embroidered with more than 2,000 rhinestones. It was designed by New York–based designer Nettie Rosenstein. (Judith Leiber made her bag, and Delman made her shoes.) At the ceremony, she wore a fur coat with a floral corsage.

Four years later, she wore yet another fur coat at the ceremony and for the ball once again a dress by Rosenstein. This time, she selected an off-the-shoulder gown in a light yellow color, embroidered with pearls, crystal drops, and translucent topaz beadwork. She carried a bag featuring the letter M on one side and 1957 on the other. Mamie brought a light touch to the role of first lady, playing hostess with panache and embracing fashions all the while.


Mamie Eisenhower posing in her inaugural ball gown in 1953.
Mamie Eisenhower posing in her inaugural ball gown in 1953.Photo: Nina Leen
The pink dress was embroidered with more than 2000 rhinestones and designed by Nettie Rosenstein.
The pink dress was embroidered with more than 2,000 rhinestones and designed by Nettie Rosenstein.Photo: Division of Political and MilitaryHistory, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Mamie Eisenhower in another Nettie Rosenstein gown worn to her husband's inauguration in 1957.
Mamie Eisenhower in another Nettie Rosenstein gown, worn to her husband's inauguration in 1957.Photo: Bettmann
Mamie Eisenhower and Dwight D. Eisenhower on their way to view the Inaugural parade in 1957.
Mamie Eisenhower and Dwight D. Eisenhower on their way to view the Inaugural parade in 1957.Photo: New York Daily News Archive

Jacqueline Kennedy


Jackie Kennedy’s time as first lady was relatively short, but her impact was unlike anything the White House had seen. Never had the presidency seen such style, youth, and culture in its office. 

Shortly after the election of her husband, John F. Kennedy, she announced that she hoped to position the White House as “a showcase of American art and history.” 

Oleg Cassini, costume and fashion designer to the stars, became Jackie’s unofficial secretary of style. For the swearing in of JFK, Jackie wore an A-line dress and coat by Russian-born Cassini. The look featured oversized buttons, a matching pillbox hat, and a muff for added warmth; although it appeared light blue in colored photos taken on the day, the dress and hat are actually a colorless, beige hue. 

The gown worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to JFK's inauguration in 1961.
The gown worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to JFK's inauguration in 1961.Photo: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian

For the gala, Jackie had a hand in designing her gown. She sent a sketch to Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Custom Salon, and the result was a columnar, off-white, sleeveless gown of silk chiffon with a chiffon overlay embellished with silver thread embroidery. It was just a couple of the many looks worn during her time as first lady that cemented her the title few are really worthy of: fashion icon.



Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson (a nickname given to her in her infancy that had a lifelong endurance) became first lady in 1963, but there was little celebration. JFK had been assassinated, and the world stood still in shock.
Lady Bird Johnson in a red wool ensemble and Hubert Humphrey at nbspLyndon Johnson's inauguration in 1965.
Lady Bird Johnson in a red wool ensemble and Hubert Humphrey at  Lyndon Johnson's inauguration in 1965.Photo: John

Two years later, after her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, was elected in 1965, a much-publicized ceremony and ball took place. For the swearing-in event, she wore a red wool dress and matching hat. At the gala, a luxuriously yellow silk-satin coat trimmed with chocolaty sable topped a short-sleeve dress that only looked simple in its construction. 

Lady Bird Johnson's in a silk and sabletrimmed coat and dress set by John Moore worn to the inaugural ball in 1965.
Lady Bird Johnson's in a silk and sable-trimmed coat and dress set by John Moore worn to the inaugural ball in 1965.Photo: Getty Images

Pleats and a clever V-bodice added architecture to the unadorned gown, designed by John Moore. In her true sensible fashion, Lady Bird opted for something she felt had a timeless appeal. She was aware her dress would be on display for years to come and made a choice she felt would age well. In her red-wool ensemble, the moment marked the first time a first lady held the bible during the presidential oath of office, and the duty was to symbolize her own part in the political position.

Lyndon Johnson dancing with Lady Bird Johnson at his inaugural ball in 1965.
Lyndon Johnson dancing with Lady Bird Johnson at his inaugural ball in 1965


Pat Nixon

Pat Nixon models the Harvey Berin gown wore to the inaugural ball in 1969.
Pat Nixon models the Harvey Berin gown wore to the inaugural ball in 1969.Photo: Getty Images

By the time Pat Nixon became first lady, she had already been second lady during the Eisenhower administration and was familiar with what the role required. In 1969 her husband, Richard Nixon, was sworn in, and to the ceremony she wore a fuschia-colored, double-breasted coat by Jay Sarnoff Custom Couture, an American label. She paired it with a fur stole and hat. To the ball, it would be a mimosa silk-satin gown designed by Karen Stark for Harvey Berin. The dress was an elegant column of satin with a beaded waist in the same style as a cropped jacket worn with it. Her shoes by Herbert Levine were monogrammed at the right instep.

Four years later at Nixon’s second inauguration in 1973, she opted for yet another solid-colored coat, this time in a blue-green trimmed with a fur collar. At the gala, she wore a long-sleeve turquoise gown covered in crystal details by Adele Simpson. Pat’s fashions grew increasingly modest as the presidency progressed.

Pat Nixon in a fuschiacolored doublebreasted coat by Jay Sarnoff Custom Couture at the ceremony in 1969.
Pat Nixon in a fuschia-colored, double-breasted coat by Jay Sarnoff Custom Couture at the ceremony in 1969.

Pat Nixon in her second inaugural ballgown designed by Adele Simpson of New York in 1973.
Pat Nixon in her second inaugural ballgown, designed by Adele Simpson of New York, in 1973.Photo: Bettmann

Betty Ford

Betty Ford became first lady suddenly in 1973, when her husband, Gerald Ford, was sworn in as president following Richard Nixon’s resignation. There were no formal inauguration festivities, but at the swearing-in ceremony, she wore a very 1970s dress suit of powder blue. Its skirt was ladylike and A-line, and the matching jacket was edged in white piping. In some photos, she’s seen accessorized with a white floral corsage. Her time as first lady lasted only three years, but she’s remembered for her feminist activism and for raising awareness of breast cancer and alcoholism and substance abuse, which she herself experienced.

Betty Ford wore a casual jacket and dressset to her husband's inauguration ceremony in 1973.
Betty Ford wore a casual jacket and dress-set to her husband's inauguration ceremony in 1973.Photo: Bill Pierce/Getty Images

Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter was a one-term first lady who opted to minimize her role as hostess at the White House, instead focusing on diplomacy. Cited as her husband’s sounding board, she sat in on her husband’s cabinet meetings. Her no-nonsense approach carried over into her wardrobe. At the inaugural ball in 1977, she wore a dress the public had already seen before. The decision was not celebrated for its wastelessness but rather deemed a lazy choice by the press, who knew she had worn the dress to Jimmy Carter’s inauguration as governor of Georgia in 1971. (For the second time around, Rosalynn did refresh the look with a new coat.)

Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter in a Dominic Rompollo coat in 1977.
Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, in a Dominic Rompollo coat, in 1977.Photo: Ron Galella/ Getty Images

The original dress, designed by Mary Matise for Jimmae, featured billowing chiffon sleeves in icy blue with a gold-embroidered bodice. The sleeveless topcoat by New York designer Dominic Rompollo was trimmed in a gold textile that mimicked that on the dress’s bodice. Rompollo would also design the princess coat she wore to the swearing-in ceremony—a blue‐green coat and dress with a stand‐up collar.

nbspRosalynn Carter in her Mary Matise for Jimmae gown and Dominic Rompollo top coat at the inaugural balls in 1977.
 Rosalynn Carter in her Mary Matise for Jimmae gown and Dominic Rompollo top coat at the inaugural balls in 1977.Photo: Getty Images

Nancy ReaganNancy Reagan wearing Adolfo at her husband's second inauguration ceremony in 1985.

Nancy Reagan wearing Adolfo at her husband's second inauguration ceremony in 1985.
Ronald Reagan Barbara Bush Nancy Reagan Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale at Reagan's first inauguration in 1981.
Ronald Reagan, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Walter Mondale at Reagan's first inauguration in 1981

A Hollywood figure before becoming first lady, Nancy Reagan understood what it meant to be in the public eye. Her appreciation and eye for fashion positioned her as a style maker, though she’s remembered mostly for her antidrug programs. At Ronald Reagan’s first swearing-in ceremony in 1981, Nancy wore a coat and hat in a color dubbed Reagan red. It was designed by Adolfo. For the ball, she wore James Galanos—she was a repeated patron of the American couturier and cemented his status as an in-demand dressmaker. The first gown was a one-shoulder, heavily beaded (as was the Galanos way) dress with a lace overlay.

Four years later, at Ronald Reagan’s second swearing-in ceremony, Nancy wore a collarless electric blue suit and hat, with gold chain jewelry and button earrings. Once again, she wore Adolfo for the ceremony and Galanos for the ball. For the second time around, the evening dress and jacket had a demure appeal. In white and silver colors, the look’s Art Deco–inspired beadwork reportedly took more than 300 hours to hand-apply.


Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan in her James Galanos gown in 1981.
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan, in her James Galanos gown, in 1981.


Barbara Bush

Coming after Nancy Regan, Barbara Bush’s personal style was less fashion forward and in line with her down-to-earth sensibilities. At the 1989 inauguration ceremony of George H. W. Bush, she wore a deep turquoise coat designed by Bill Blass and paired it with a multistrand pearl necklace. That night, she wore a wonderful royal blue gown by Arnold Scaasi, constructed in velvet at the bodice and sleeves with a draped satin skirt.

George H. W. and Barbara Bush in Bill Blass in 1989.
George H. W. and Barbara Bush, in Bill Blass, in 1989.Photo: Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

Barbara Bush next to the Arnold Scaasi dress worn to her husband's inauguration in nbsp1989.
Barbara Bush next to the Arnold Scaasi dress worn to her husband's inauguration in  1989.Photo: CynthiaJohnson/Getty Images

George Bush and Barbara Bush in Arnold Scaasi at the gala in 1989.nbsp
George Bush and Barbara Bush, in Arnold Scaasi, at the gala in 1989. 

Hillary Clinton

Before her time in pantsuits as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton more often wore dresses and skirts as first lady. At Bill Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony in 1993, Hillary wore a checked pink suit by Arkansas designer Connie Fails, whom Hillary had commissioned several things from to ready herself as first lady. She topped the look with a cadet blue velour, off-the-face hat by Darcy Creech. At the inaugural ball, Hillary wore yet another Arkansas-based designer as a nod to her husband’s home state. The gown, designed by Sarah Phillips, was a slinky, violet-beaded lace sheath dress with an iridescent blue velvet silk mousseline overskirt for added volume. Four years later, at Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, Hillary looked to Oscar de la Renta to get dressed for inaugural events. At the swearing-in ceremony, Hillary wore his cheerful coral-colored dress and coat set in wool melton. For the ball, she dazzled in a high-neck, long-sleeve embroidered tulle dress in ivory metallics.

Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton in Connie Fails at the inaugural parade in 1993.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, in Connie Fails, at the inaugural parade in 1993.Photo: Steve Liss/Getty Images
Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton in a Sarah Phillips gown in 1993.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, in a Sarah Phillips gown, in 1993.Photo: DAVIDAKE/Getty Images
Bill Clinton Hillary Clinton  and Chelsea Clinton at the second inauguration in 1997.
Hillary Clinton also wore Oscar de la Renta to the inaugural ball in 1997.Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton (in Oscar de la Renta), and Chelsea Clinton at the second inauguration in 1997.Photo: Paul J. Richards/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton also wore Oscar de la Renta to the inaugural ball in 1997.








Laura Welch Bush Before she was first lady, 


President George W. Bush Laura Bush  Bill Clinton Hillary Clinton in 2001.
President George W. Bush, Laura Bush (in Michael Faircloth), Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton in 2001.
Before she was first lady, Laura Bush was an educator, and she took up literacy as one of her many initiatives. Bush brought a no-fuss flair to her time in office, and the public responded to her reassuring presence.
In 2001, Laura looked to Dallas couturier Michael Faircloth, who is largely unknown outside of that city, to costume her for the inauguration. She wore a single-breasted, peacock blue coat and skirt to the day ceremony and later a long-sleeve, crystal-embroidered gown of Chantilly lace over silk georgette. Four years later at George W. Bush’s second inauguration in 2005, Laura also sought out Oscar de la Renta. To the swearing-in ceremony, she wore an elegant winter white cashmere coat and dress. To the ball, she appeared in a V-neck, long-sleeve dress embroidered with bugle beads and Austrian crystals in a soft blue to match the first lady’s eyes.
Laura Bush wore a red gown by Texan designer Michael Faircloth to her husband's first inaugural gala in 2001.nbsp
Laura Bush wore a red gown by Texan designer Michael Faircloth to her husband's first inaugural gala in 2001. Photo: Adobe
George W. Bush and Laura Bush, in Oscar de la Renta, in 2005.Photo: Alamy
George W. Bush and Laura Bush in Oscar de la Renta in 2005. 
George W. Bush and Laura Bush in 2005.

Michelle Obama

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in 2009.
Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in 2009.Photo: SAUL LOEB/ Getty Images

Come 2009, Michelle Obama, the first Black first lady, was a breath of fresh air. At Barack Obama’s 2009 swearing-in ceremony, Michelle exercised her knowing fashion eye in selecting a lemongrass-colored Isabel Toledo wool and lace dress and jacket with a pair of olive green J. Crew gloves. At the ceremony, she was a vision in a white one-shouldered silk chiffon gown embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers. The dress helped catapult its designer, Jason Wu, to fashion fame.

Michelle Obama surprised then young designer Jason Wu by selecting his gown in 2009.
Michelle Obama surprised then young designer Jason Wu by selecting his gown in 2009.Photo: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

Four years later, in 2013, Michelle appeared the modern woman in a Thom Browne coat and dress set in a navy-silk, checkered-pattern fabric. The look was finished off with a matching belt embellished with metallic paillettes. The inaugural ball gown was once again designed by Jason Wu. This time, he chose a fiery red color for a silk chiffon halter dress that moved beautifully around the stage as Michelle and her husband danced.

Michelle Obama wore an Isabel Toledo dress and coat set to Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009.nbsp
Michelle Obama wore an Isabel Toledo dress and coat set to Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Photo: Alamy

Michelle Obama in Thom Browne in 2013.
Michelle Obama in Thom Browne in 2013.Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Michelle Obama opted to wear Jason Wu once again to her second inaugural ball in 2013.
Michelle Obama opted to wear Jason Wu once again to her second inaugural ball in 2013.Photo: AP Images

Melania Trump

Melania Trump in 2017.

In 2017 Melania Trump wore a sky blue cashmere Ralph Lauren ensemble. At the inaugural ball, she wore a vanilla silk crepe off-the-shoulder gown, designed by Hervé Pierre, that was cinched with a claret ribbon around the waist.

Melania Trump in 2017. 

Jill Biden

At Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony in 2021, Jill Biden wore a  robin’s egg blue coat from the young New York–based label Markarian, created by designer Alexandra O’Neill. The coat is custom made and embroidered with Swarovski crystals for added sheen. Of course, the look comes with an accessory never before worn at an inaugural ceremony—a face mask. The covering is a reminder for future generations that, despite the celebrations of our new president, there is a pandemic still devastating the country.

Dr. Jill Biden wearing a Markarian look and Joe Biden.
Dr. Jill Biden, wearing a Markarian look, and Joe Biden.Photo: Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images

Dr. Jill Biden and Joe Biden at the inauguration in 2021.
Dr. Jill Biden and Joe Biden at the inauguration in 2021.Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Dr. Jill Biden in a facemask in the shame shade as her Markarian dress and Joe Biden.

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