Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Dresses of America's First Ladies

When I first visited Washington D.C. back in my college days, the Smithsonian was undergoing renovations. This meant that most of the First Ladies Dress Collection was in storage, and I could only see a select few of the gowns. 

This summer I got a second chance to visit the museum, and was able to enjoy the entire collection in all of it's splendor. My awesome friend Matt took tons of great pictures, so that I was able to focus on drooling over the dresses themselves (sorry Smithsonian glass cleaning guys...). 

While there are too many pictures to share all of them in this post, I am quite thrilled to be able to bring you my gushing over my favorite pieces.


Although Eleanor Roosevelt served as First Lady during the Great Depression and WWII, the dress on display at the museum is actually Victorian in design. Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize the same narrow waist, bustle, and swept back skirt that Dowager Countess Violet wears.


However, countess though she may be, Violet never wears an ensemble with quite this much sparkle, the difference in time period and country of origin likely being the cause!


I can't ever look at beadwork and embellishment like this without trying to calculate how much time they took to do and having to give up in order to avoid a headache. It's insane and breathtaking.



In contrast to Eleanor, Lou Hoover's evening gown is a simple understated black. However, despite its lack of embellishment, it is classy, elegant and very flattering.




Lou Hoover had another dress on display, this one a light floral chiffon that looks like it was perfect for summer entertaining.



Frances Cleveland appears to have been a fashion trend setter, as this gorgeous yellow dress of hers is about as fashion forwards as you can get, modeling the straight column silhouette that would be popular for the next few decades.









Another Downton Abbey fan alert! This gown, worn by Edith Wilson, looks like it stepped right off the screen of our favorite period drama. I love the various fabric layering, and the exquisite draping beads down the front.


I'm afraid we didn't get all of the signs, so I can't identify the wearer of this dress, but it is from the height of the Victorian age, when they were trying to cram as much embellishment, frill and ruffle as they could onto dresses, lamps, chairs, pillows, houses, etc.








An interesting asymmetrical look here, and I'm not sure whether I like it, but nonetheless, the cut appears to have flattered Mamie Eisenhower's frame perfectly.





I think this may have been another Elinor Roosevelt, but at any rate, it's from the 1920's and has gorgeous beadwork and delicate net godets.


Here we have a look at Michelle Obama's inaugural ball gown. It features (for a modern gown) an inspiring amount of embellishment, but from a distance the effect looks to me like a bad case of acne. Which is unfortunate because the dress had a lot going for it, and if the shape of the flowers had been a bit different, I would have loved the gown.




(Again, no name identifying this one. If anyone has the info, let me know and I'll edit it!)



I love these two gowns! Firstly for their embellishment, secondly for their styles. The green one is a lovely piece of tailoring, while the blue one has a gorgeous Persian feel to it.



One of my favorite gowns, believe it or not, was Hilary Clinton's. It was beautifully constructed, appropriate for her age and yet full of class, elegance and charm. Wonderful beadwork without being gaudy.


I love the fabric and skirt of Laura Bush's gown, but feel the neckline and sleeves were a bit too plain and severe, and she would have done better to have had a wider neck or a different cut on the sleeves.



And this was one of my favorites of the older gowns. I love the neckline, the bodice, and the way the pleats fall on the skirt.

It's really an interesting look at American fashion, and at American women and I would highly recommend anyone visiting the Smithsonian to take a look at the exhibit.

1 comment:

  1. Photographer to the rescue, identifying your missing dresses. (You could have just asked me!)

    The frilly Victorian gown: Worn by Lucy Hayes in 1880. Gold damask and cream satin gown.

    Blue flapper dress: Worn by Grace Coolidge. Blue satin flapper-style evening gown trimmed with dark-blue sequins and gold glass beads. It's been shortened since she wore it; she gave it to her White House maid, who later gave it to her daughter, who was apparently shorter than Mrs. Coolidge.

    Yellow gown: Worn by Pat Nixon at the 1969 Inaugural Ball. Mimosa silk satin, embroidered in gold and silver, encrusted with Austrian crystals.

    Pale-green dress: Worn by Betty Ford to various state dinners in 1975 and '76. Pale-green sequined chiffon gown embroidered in a chrysanthemum pattern. Personally chosen by Mrs. Ford to represent her in the collection, since there wasn't an inaugural ball for her husband. (President Ford inherited the office after President Nixon resigned.)

    The "Persian" gown: Worn by Rosalynn Carter to both of her husband's inaugural balls: first as governor of Georgia, then as President of the United States. Gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown, with a gold-embroidered sleeveless coat.

    And the final old-timey gown: . . . sorry, I have nothing. My camera was dying and I can't remember whose that was. I'll try to find it later.

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