While men have held the office of President since the beginning of this nation, the women who stand beside them have been using their style to send a message. Inauguration procedure is governed by tradition rather than the Constitution, the only constitutionally required procedure being the presidential oath of office. And the Inaugural Ball began in 1809 after James Madison’s first inauguration. There are typically 2 outfits on Inauguration Day for the First Lady: the one worn on the lawn and the one worn to the Inaugural Ball at the White House.
Historically, styles of the presumptive First Lady have been modest. One, the inauguration has been held in January since 1937 when it is typically cold and second, a more modest style is culturally flattering. The dresses worn to the ball are also representative of the period.
For example, Mamie Eisenhower’s princess cut dress from 1953 and Lou Henry Hoover’s dropped waistline dress from 1929. Dress lengths vary based on the pictures we have of the First Women over the last 100 years but are somewhere between the knee and floor length. These First Women often bundled up in coats or capes with fur muffs and warm layers for the Inauguration.
Are the First Ladies making strong political statements with their apparel? Since everything we wear has a message, they are definitely saying something. While many (over) analyze the color of the President-Elect’s tie, perhaps we should be scrutinizing what the future First Lady is wearing instead. For example, Michelle Obama wore a gown by Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo in 2009. Later in 2009, President Obama eased restrictions on travel to the island nation. Laura Bush chose to support Texas Designer Michael Faircloth in 2001, paying homage to her home state. And Hillary Clinton wore a gown made by NYC costumer Barbara Matera LTD, where she later became a senator.
The dresses often worn to the White House Inaugural Ball vary in color and style but are often a long ball gown, with colors ranging from red to blue, purple and yellow. But I noticed many of the First Women wore white. White was one of the prominent colors worn by suffragettes at the turn of the 20th century. First Ladies who have worn white to the Inauguration include: Jackie Kennedy in 1961, Nancy Reagan in 1981 & 1985, Laura Bush in 2005, Michelle Obama in 2009, and Melania Trump in 2017. Each dress is as unique as its wearer for example Nancy and Michelle both wore a one shoulder dress, and Melania collaborated with designer Herve Pierre for her gown.
White isn’t everyone’s color. Hillary Clinton wore both a blue-purple gown in 1993 and gold gown in 1997. Both purple and gold/yellow have strong ties to the suffrage movement. Lady Bird Johnson donned a yellow gown at her husband’s Inaugural Ball in 1965, and Michelle Obama wore a yellow dress and coat in 2009.
Choices in dress were significantly less glamorous for the First Ladies whose husbands were sworn into the office as President after the death of the previous President. Bess Truman and Lady Bird Johnson wore more practical everyday attire at these ceremonies.
Another popular choice for the Inaugural Ball dress is a certain level of glitz. From Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama, crystals and sparkles are often worn by the First Lady. Mamie Eisenhower’s 1953 gown included more than 2,000 rhinestones; Eleanor Roosevelt’s dress was made entirely in the U.S.; and the glamorous gown worn by Nancy Reagan in 1985 reportedly took 300 hours to hand sew all the glass beads on. Beaded dresses have been worn by Democrats and Republicans alike, such as Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. Inaugural Ball dresses have had a variety of necklines and sleeve lengths based on the First Lady and her style. It is safe to say nothing is off-limits.
I am not only excited to see what Dr. Jill Biden chooses to wear, but also what our first female Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris wears. VP-Elect Harris opted for a classic suffragette white pantsuit at the Biden/Harris Victory speech, and I expect an equally stunning look on January 20th.