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Friday, January 18, 2013

First Lady Gown Curator: ‘We Look At Clothes For Clues’

During Monday’s inauguration, many people won’t be looking as much at the president as at what the First Lady is wearing.

At the many inaugural balls four years ago, Michelle Obama, who’s known for picking up-and-coming young designers, wore a beautiful, floaty one-strap white dress with a train and crystal beading.

Helen Taft also wore a white dress with a train to her husband’s inauguration, 100 years earlier in 1909.

The museum's collection began when Helen Taft donated this gown, which she wore to her husband  William Howard Taft’s 1909 inauguration. (National Museum of American History)

The museum’s collection began when Helen Taft donated this gown, which she wore to her husband William Howard Taft’s 1909 inauguration. (National Museum of American History)

In between, Jacqueline Kennedy almost went strapless.

Rosalynn Carter wore her dress three times.

And Laura Bush became the first First Lady to wear ruby red to an inaugural ball.

One day, all eyes may be on the dress the president is wearing, and that may be a dilemma for The First Ladies collection at the  Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“People always ask, what would we do, ” Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of  the museum’s collection, told Here & Now. “When the first woman is president, it will be the question as to who acts as the official hostess of her White House, and that in theory would be the person we would need to add to the collection.”

That means a tuxedo could sit alongside the dresses in the collection, “or maybe her daughter’s dress,” Graddy said.

The First Lady gowns are among the most popular exhibits at the National Museum of American History.

The collection began when Helen Taft donated her 1909 inaugural gown to the museum. Since then, every First Lady who has been present at an inaugural ball has given the museum her gown.

“Costume is very evocative, it’s very intimate and it makes you feel a connection to that person,” Graddy said. “You get an idea of what they looked like – how tall they were, what colors they liked. So I think it makes us feel as if we know that person a little bit.”

Watch Graddy talk about preparing the gowns for an exhibition:

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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