When Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth President, James Madison, hosted the first Inauguration Ball in 1809, she sported a scoop-necked, hand-embroidered cream velvet gown with a long and winding train. According to one attendee, Madison’s ensemble “answered all my ideas of royalty.”
In the years since First Ladies have followed in Madison’s footsteps, embracing the grandeur of the Ball while also setting the tone of their agenda by painting a visual narrative of the incoming administration.
In some cases, the cost of the gown worn to the Ball has made the biggest splash. To make an economical statement amid a recession in 1977, Rosalynn Carter recycled an off-the-rack Mary Matise for Jimmae frock which she’d worn twice before; while in 1981 and 1985, financial boom years in America, Nancy Reagan opted for gowns by American couturier, Jamas Galanos, who once famously remarked: “I’m only interested in designing for a certain type of woman. Specifically, one that has money.”
On other occasions, the designer of the FLOTUS’ gowns has spoken volumes. Michelle Obama wore Asian American designer Jason Wu to both inaugurations, which catapulted the-then 26-year-old graduate of Parsons School of Design, into the public consciousness, while Southern belle Laura Bush endorsed her fellow Texan, fashion designer, Michael Faircloth, to craft her a Republican red dazzling dress, a nod to her commitment to her home state.
It’s little wonder that the finer details are paid so much heed, given that these are quite literally history-making dresses that wind up on display at the Smithsonian Museum in its First Ladies Collection, a tradition which was started in 1912 by First Lady Helen Taft.
Ahead of this year’s decidedly more sombre affair – the Inaugural Balls have been cancelled due to the pandemic - we’ve taken a trip down memory lane look at the stories that have defined the FLOTUS’ Inaugural ball gowns of recent decades.
Melania Knauss Trump, 2017
For the Inaugural Ball in 2017, Mrs. Trump wore a sharp white shoulder-bearing gown that had a slight red detailing around the waist. The dress, which boasted a knee-high split at its front, was the result of a collaboration between Mrs. Trump and French designer Hervé Pierre, the former creative director of Carolina Herrera.
In an interview with the New York Times, Pierre revealed that Trump – who had learned of Pierre through friends - had texted the designer herself just two weeks before the ball to inquire as to whether he could design a “sleek,” “modern” and “form-fitting” dress for the occasion. After the ball, whilst flying back to New York with Mrs. Trump, Pierre recalled checking his Twitter feed while the FLOTUS checked hers, as the pair came to the realisation that the dress had been a success. “I guess we nailed it,” he recalled her telling him.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2013
For her second and final Inaugural Ball as FLOTUS, Obama chose designer Jason Wu once again. He created her a custom ruby-red velvet chiffon halter-neck gown, which she paired with shoes once again by Jimmy Choo and jewellery by Kimberly McDonald. Wu admitted in an interview with WWD that, unlike the first ball in 2009, he had no idea that Obama was going to wear a design of his for the second time. He said: "Mrs. Obama likes to keep her secrets. She surprised me again. She’s really good at it, I was so nervous.”
Admitting that he designed the woven faille coupé gown in red to honour the First Lady’s confidence, he told the publication: "After four years in office, I thought the country was ready to see a confident First Lady in red. It just felt right."
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2009
Michelle Obama catapulted Jason Wu onto the fashion map when she sported a white silk chiffon gown embellished with crystals and flowers of his design to the 2009 Inauguration Ball. Wu designed the floaty, one-shouldered gown to “symbolise hope” and admitted to the New York Times that to have a First Lady wear one of your designs at the Inaugural Ball “gives you a recognisable name overnight and changes your profile in a meaningful way.”
To accessorise her look, Obama wore Jimmy Choo heels and jewellery by Loree Rodkin.
Laura Lane Welch Bush, 2001
Texas-native Laura Bush threw her weight behind home-state designer Michael Faircloth for her first Inaugural Ball. Faircloth crafted a stunning scarlet crystal-embroidered Chantilly lace and silk georgette gown for Bush, which she accessorised with a ruby-red clutch by Judith Leiber.
“Mrs. Bush wears what feels comfortable, what she feels good in, and what’s appropriate,” said Bush’s spokeswoman Ashleigh Adams in 2001.
Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton, 1993
When it came to finding a gown for the 1993 ball, the future Secretary of State employed the services of Barbara Baber, a boutique owner in Arkansas, her husband’s home state and where he had been governor, to help her decide. The duo chose an amethyst-coloured lace gown by Sarah Phillips. Of the choice, Baber said: "It doesn't take a whole lot to make her look good. Fashion victim she's not."
For her second Inaugural Ball in 1998, Clinton opted for a pared-back gold embroidered Oscar de la Renta gown, accompanied by a matching cape.
Nancy Davis Reagan, 1981
Nancy Reagan, who made it her mission to throw her weight behind American designers during her tenure, endorsed James Galanos for both of her husband’s Inauguration Balls. For her debut in 1981, she sported a dashing one-shouldered white beaded silk satin gown by the homegrown designer, which featured lace embellishments and matching opera gloves.
On her feet, she wore beaded white shoes by David Evins and an ivory bag by Judith Leiber. In 1985, her gown was a considerably bolder white chiffon number which was embellished with Austrian and Czechoslovakian glass beads that took more than 300 hours to hand-apply.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter, 1977
In the midst of a recession, Rosalynn Carter made the economical decision to recycle the dress she’d worn for her husband’s 1971 inauguration as governor of Georgia: a floating blue and gold chiffon sleeveless off-the-rack gown, which was designed by Mary Matise for Jimmae. She accessorised with a simple gold bag by After Five.
Thelma “Pat” Catherine Ryan Nixon, 1969
To attend her husband Richard Nixon’s Inaugural Ball, Pat Nixon opted for a banana yellow silk satin gown (and matching bolero) by Karen Stark by Harvey Berin, which was encrusted with Austrian crystals. On her feet, she sported co-ordinating shoes by Herbert Levine, which had her name and the date inscribed on the right instep, and a yellow bag which was designed by Morris Moskowitz.
"The Nixons are middle-American people who don't want to be flash-in-the-pan," her wardrobe mistress Clara Treyz told Time. "They don't want to be jet-setty or way out. Mrs. Nixon must be ladylike." In an “unprecedented manouvre”, the First Lady wore the satin dress and its matching jacket to two more public events during her time in the White House.
Jacqueline “Jackie” Lee Bouvier Kennedy, 1961
To attend her first Inaugural Ball, Jackie Kennedy sported a figure-hugging off-white straight-necked silk chiffon gown, which came with a matching cape. Underneath the cape, the dress came with a ruched sheer overlay and a strapless bodice. The dress was designed and created by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Goodman’s Custom Salon, who made the dress according to the First Lady’s sketches and suggestions.
Following her eye-catching debut, the Washington Post remarked that her "career as a major fashion influence was beginning impressively."
Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower, 1953
"First Lady pink" became a national sensation in the wake of Mamie Eisenhower’s 1953 Inaugural Ball debut, for which the wife of former general and president-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, wore a rose-hued taffeta gown, which was designed by Nettie Rosenstein and featured more than 2,000 hand-embroidered rhinestones. To complete the look, Eisenhower accessorised with co-ordinating pink opera gloves, jewellery by Trifari, a beaded clutch bag by Judith Leiber, and a pair of bespoke Delman kitten heels, which had her name printed on the left instep.
Eisenhower’s ensemble was regarded as a welcome reprieve from the last decade of war, during which women, many hard at work in factories, had typically sported much more modest styles.