Whenever a new U.S. president gets elected, they have an inauguration. It is a ceremony followed by a ball. While the president takes center stage, the new First Lady receives special attention. First Ladies spend a lot of time on their inaugural gowns.
From Mamie Eisenhower to Melania Trump, every First Lady has gone all out on their inauguration dress. Some even planned their attire before the election concluded. They often hired talented designers, some famous, others not well known. Check out the most gorgeous inaugural gowns throughout U.S. history.
Jackie Kennedy, The First Lady Of Fashion
Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy changed fashion as we know it. Instead of opting for detailed, lace-and-crystal clothes, she wore simple, streamlined gowns. Her inaugural ball dress is no exception. It was an off-white chiffon dress with no sleeves and a silk top.
Designer Ethel Frankau added a twist: a cape. The cape matched the dress and was tied in the front. Like the gown, it included pearl beading. Jackie and Frankau worked on sketches together to design all three of her inauguration dresses–yes, three! One before the inauguration, one during the ceremony, and one for the party.
Lady Bird Johnson’s Dress Represented Hope
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson became the 36th president of the United States. His First Lady was Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson. She requested designer John Moore for a yellow, satin gown for the inauguration. Lady Bird chose yellow because she saw it as the color of hope; the inauguration took place one year after Kennedy’s assassination.
The understated dress had a high neckline and sleeves. Lady Bird wore long, white gloves that went over her elbows and a pearl necklace. Instead of a coat, she donned a brown fur shawl.
Michelle Obama Promoted An Unknown Designer
When Barak Obama first got inaugurated in 2009, Michelle wore a dress from an unknown designer. Although Jason Wu was not famous at the time, he excelled with her white chiffon gown. The one-shoulder dress is garnished with organza flowers and Swarovski crystals. Her shoes were from Jimmy Choo and her jewelry by Loree Rodkin.
Jason Wu is a Taiwanese-born Canadian and first-generation American citizen. Designing Michelle’s gown granted him mainstream success in designing. In 2013, Michelle hired Wu again for her second inaugural gown, this time in an eye-catching red.
Michelle Obama’s Second Dress Is Striking
For Michelle Obama’s second inaugural gown, designer Jason Wu opted for a sparkling ruby red. The dress had a cross-halter strap neckline with velvet details. Wu combined it with bracelets by Kimberly McDonald and shoes by Jimmy Choo. Obama had also just cut her stylish bangs.
In January 2013, the Smithsonian displayed Michelle Obama’s second inaugural dress. The gown joined the First Ladies exhibit and celebrated the museum’s 50th anniversary. The First Ladies exhibit still exists today and has featured inaugural dresses since 2011.
Barbara Bush Coined A New Color
A few years before George Bush entered the White House, George H.W. Bush got inaugurated in 1989. His wife, Barbara Bush, enlisted the help of designer Arnold Scaasi. Throughout his long career, Scaasi had designed dresses for First Ladies like Mamie Eisenhower.
The dress was called “Barbara Blue” for its two-tone blue hues. The bodice is navy blue velvet, and the skirt is royal blue satin. The sleeves have a classic Princess Diana puff that was popular in the ’80s. Designer Judith Leiber made her classic pearl necklace and matching purse.
Hillary Clinton Got Her Gown Before The Election Ended
Bill Clinton entered his first term in 1993. While he wore a classic black tux, the First Lady Hillary Clinton donned a violet gown. She reached out to one of her favorite, little-known designers, Sarah Phillips. Hillary asked Phillips to send her sketches before Clinton had even won the election.
The ball gown had an iridescent blue overskirt made from silk mousseline. Sparkling lace decorated long sleeves and a high neckline. Phillips hailed from Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s home state, where he had worked as governor. She had help from costume designer Barbara Matera Ltd.
Hillary Clinton Wore Her Second Dress To 14 Balls
In 1997, Bill Clinton held a record-breaking 14 inaugural balls, the most in American history. First Lady Hillary Clinton wore a dress from the famous designer Oscar de la Renta. For some of the night, she donned a golden cape with the gown as an homage to Jackie Kennedy’s fashion.
Oscar de la Renta created an A-line gown with golden lace. It had long sleeves and a high neckline. Clinton first met the designer when she ran into him at the Kennedy Convention. He said that she was wearing one of his dresses, which she didn’t know at the time.
Grace Coolidge Wore A Top Hat
Calvin Coolidge’s wife, Grace, preferred to wear pants and keep her hair short. But she was also known for her lavish outfits. Her inauguration outfit broke boundaries with her feathered top hat. Along with her grey dress, of course.
Grace Coolidge sported a white, fur-trimmed jacket that matched the hat. She completed the unique look with fitted gloves and a beaded clutch. Coolidge’s style has been described as “modern.” While in France, she was awarded a gold medal for her fashion sense from Charles Worth of the French garment industry.
Mamie Eisenhower Revealed Her Gown Before The Ball
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first American president to host two inaugural balls. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower needed a dress that could withstand both parties. She donned a light pink peau de soie gown by designer Nettie Rosenstein, which she showed the press a week before the event.
Over 2,000 rhinestones decorated the dress, which was a full a-line dress with a v-neck. The matching gloves and jewelry came from Trifari. Mamie topped the look with a purse by Judith Leiber and shoes that she had her name printed on.
Media Swarmed Over Rosalynn Carter’s Dress
In 1977, Jimmy Carter began his presidency. His First Lady, Eleanor Rosalynn Carter (sometimes just called Rosalynn Carter), wore an elaborate dress. Designer Mary Matise created a gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown. She also donned a gold-and-blue coat over her dress.
The dress had translucent sleeves and a gold T-shaped neckline. Rosalynn also carried a simple, gold purse by After Five. The news pounced on her dress, discussing the lavishness and symbolism of bringing glamor into the White House. Carter called his wife his “best friend and chief advisor.”
Nancy Reagan’s First Gown For The “Most Lavish” Ball
The New York Times called Ronald Reagan’s inauguration ball the “most lavish” in American history. In 1981, First Lady Nancy Reagan entered the ball in a white gown with rose decorations. The designer, James Galanos, was known to create garments for high-profile customers.
The one-shoulder gown was made with silk satin, and its designs had white beads and sheaths of lace. Galanos also made the matching white gloves, which went with Ronald Regan’s tux shirt and bow. David Evins designed Nancy’s white purse, and her jewelry was from Judith Leiber. All are on display in the Smithsonian.
Nancy’s Second Inaugural Gown Took 300 Hours To Make
In 1985, Ronald Reagan was elected president for a second term. For her second inauguration ball, Nancy one again hired designer James Galanos. Her sparkling dress had a bolero-esque and art deco design. Galanos spent 300 hours applying all of the beads by hand.
Nancy Reagan was known to love handmade clothes, but she also adored high fashion. Her second inaugural dress combined both. It was carefully made with white chiffon and glass beads from Austria and Czechoslovakia. Throughout her life, designer Galanos continued to create dresses for her.
Pat Nixon Went Yellow For Her First Inaugural Dress
In 1969, Richard Nixon began his first presidential term. His wife, Thelema “Pat” Nixon, wore a pale yellow gown to the ball. Designer Karen Stark made it with silk satin and embroidered it with silver and gold. The long-sleeved top is encrusted with Austrian crystals.
Pat also wore matching shoes created by Herbert Levine. They included carvings of her name and the date. She completed the look with white gloves and a yellow purse by Morris Moskowitz. On that night, Richard Nixon said, “When [Pat] gets finished with [the dress], you’ll get it at the Smithsonian.”
Laura Bush Represented Her Home State
George Bush was inaugurated into his first term in 2001. Then, First Lady Laura Bush decided to represent her home state by choosing the Dallas-based designer, Michael Faircloth. Although many First Ladies wear white to the inauguration, Laura donned a fiery red.
The dress was embroidered with Chantilly lace and red crystals. Underneath was a silk mermaid gown with a scoop neckline and long sleeves. Laura also carried a matching red purse by designer Judith Leiber. She completed the look with a dainty silver choker.
Laura’s Second Inaugural Designer Dressed Many First Ladies
In January 2005, George W. Bush went into his second term in office. Oscar de la Renta, who created gowns for many other first ladies such as Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline Kennedy, designed Laura Bush’s dress. It was an ice-blue v-neck covered in sparkles.
The dress had a slit down the middle and long, translucent sleeves. It was heavily embroidered with Austrian and bugle beads. De la Renta chose the color to match Laura’s eyes. Throughout the years, Laura Bush wore several of Oscar de la Renta’s clothes, even appearing in Vogue.
Helen Taft Pioneered The Smithsonian’s First Lady Exhibit
Helen Taft, the wife of William Howard Taft, encouraged the creating the First Lady exhibit in the Smithsonian. When curators asked for her to contribute a dress, she donated her 1909 inaugural gown. The white silk chiffon gown had floral embroideries and a train.
The designs on her dress were a combination of appliqués and rhinestones. Strings of crystals also hung off of the sleeves. The gown had an unusual but stunning square neckline. For accessories, Helen wore long white gloves and a lace choker that matched the dress. Today, the dress appears yellow because it discolored over time.
Betty Ford Worked With This Dress’s Designer
After Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, Gerald Ford took his place as the 38th president. His wife, Betty Ford, wore a pale green chiffon gown to the inauguration. Betty reached out to designer Frankie Welch with ideas for the dress, including her favorite color. There were no inaugural balls when Ford entered office.
The gown was covered with embroidered chrysanthemums with small crystals. It had a high collar with a low, narrow v-neck and long sleeves. Later, Betty wore the same dress for dinners with her husband and King Juan Carlos of Spain.
Mamie Sparkled During The Second Inauguration
For Dwight Eisenhower’s second inaugural ball, Mamie wore another design from Nettie Rosenstein. Her yellow ballgown had a pretty off-the-shoulder neckline. The taffeta is covered with pearls, lace, crystal drops, and topaz. It is no secret that Mamie loved bling.
Like the previous inauguration, Mamie customized part of her outfit. This time, she carried a Trifari bag with the letter “M” on one side and the date “1957” on the other. She accessorized her look with an elegant pearl neckline and long, white gloves.
Lou Hoover Appeared In Vogue
Lou Hoover started many “firsts” for First Ladies. She pioneered First Lady radio broadcasts and was the first president’s wife to appear in Vogue. Lou was also known for her high fashion. The dress she wore to Herbert Hoover’s 1929 inauguration was no exception.
Lou wore a dark drey dress with a train. Both the neckline and sleeves were stylized to flow and appear asymmetrical. The silk crepe gown also had a silver thread brocade and broach. In the Smithsonian, it looks more green than grey because of aging.
Melania Trump’s Dress Is In The Smithsonian
During the 2016 presidential inauguration, Melania Trump wore a dress by designer Hervé Pierre. It is a figure-hugging white gown with a slit skirt and ruffle that wraps around the body. Pierre designed the gown while collaborating with Melania. After Melania wore the dress on July 20, 2017, she gave it to the Smithsonian.
The museum displays the dress in a section titled First Ladies. It explores the changing roles of American first ladies throughout the past 200 years. Melania was both surprised and grateful that her dress had gone on display.