Power fashion: US First Ladies’ ball gowns on display

Thursday, January 13, 2011

WASHINGTON - The person at the focal point of the inauguration ball for a US president is the First Lady. What will she wear? A museum in Washington has gathered together the ball gowns worn by First Ladies over the decades.

On Jan 20, 2009 Michelle Obama was led onto the dance floor by her husband Barack wearing a white chiffon dress. She glowed with pride and happiness after he was sworn in as president.

The Swarovski crystals on her fingers glittered, the people around her applauded. Today, a mannequin wears the gown and everyone who is inclined to can admire it and dream.

The National Museum of American History is displaying what First Ladies wore on the evening of evenings as part of an exhibition.

Every year four million people from around the world visit the museum, which is one of the US capital’s tourist magnets. Laura Duff, the museum’s spokeswoman, says “The exhibition is one of our most popular. Many visitors come here just to see it.”

Michelle Obama’s gown is the latest addition. White chiffon silk flows from the waist to the floor. It is covered in organza flowers, each with a Swarovski crystal at its centre. It’s a gown that appears both girlish and light at the same time.

There was great excitement and expectation ahead of Obama’s inauguration day. What dress would the fashion-conscious and athletic First Lady choose? Jason Wu designed the gown she wore - a great honour for the then 26-year-old who was born in Taiwan and today lives in New York.

Designer Loree Rodkin created the jewellery to match the gown: long, almost shoulder length earrings, a diamond ring and bracelets made of white gold. Jimmy Choo shoes completed the ensemble.

“Michelle Obama’s dress is without doubt the most beautiful. Every second woman who comes here wants a photo taken of her with the dress,” says the student Yasmin Djabarian, who is visiting the museum for the first time. “I also think it’s great to see how fashion has changed over the decades. For me personally the exhibition is the highlight of the whole museum.”

Yasmin is not the only person who thinks that. Anyone who visits the exhibition is immersed in a dream world, a world where fashion is also political and where only the most expensive materials are used.

Along with the dresses, the society lives of the president’s wives and their roles as First Ladies are also on display. But it’s the inauguration gowns that get the most attention.

Not far from Michelle Obama’s gown is another chiffon dress: Jacqueline Kennedy’s outfit from 1961. It looks chic and lady-like. Straight cuts, no decollete and sleeveless, only on second glance do you discover that under the silk top there is a rhinestone-encrusted and silver-thread embroidered bodice.

Kennedy designed the dress herself and it was made at the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman in New York.

Another white gown appeared at the 1981 inauguration ball when Nancy Reagan wore a pearl-embroidered, white sheath dress. Ahead of the event, the New York Times wrote in November 1980 that “she has flair and style and she will be different than any other First Lady before.” Critics said she spent too much time on her appearance.

But it is not only between Michelle Obama, Jacky Kennedy and Nancy Reagan that parallels can be drawn. The gowns worn by Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush also share similarities and are on show in the same display case at the museum.

Both of them are floor length, made from complicated lace and are long-armed. At first glance it is only the colour that differentiates them: in 1993 Hillary wore blue (the colour of the Democrats) and in 2001 Laura chose red (the Republican colour).

Compared to the gowns worn by Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, Mamie Eisenhower put more on display in 1953. She showed far more decollete and she also bared her shoulders, long before Michelle Obama.

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