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Friday, January 18, 2013

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

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance at the Commander in Chief Inaugural Ball at the National Building Museum in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. (Charles Dharapak/AP)Michelle Obama's 2009 inaugural gown was a one-shouldered white silk chiffon gown embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers, designed by Jason Wu. (National Museum of American History)First Lady Helen Taft enthusiastically supported the establishment of the first ladies collection. When asked to contribute a dress to the exhibition, she chose the gown she wore to her husband’s 1909 inauguration. Her choice established a precedent for future First Ladies. (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)Mamie Eisenhower wore this pink peau de soie gown embroidered with more than 2,000 rhinestones to the 1953 inaugural balls. The dress was designed by Nettie Rosenstein. (National Museum of American History)President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in a relaxed moment as they attend one of five Inaugural Balls on January 20, 1961. At left is vice-president Lyndon Johnson. (AP)Jacqueline Kennedy wore this off-white sleeveless gown of silk chiffon over peau d’ange to the 1961 inaugural balls. Its strapless bodice under the chiffon covering is encrusted with brilliants and embroidered with silver thread. Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Custom Salon designed and made the dress based on sketches and suggestions from Mrs. Kennedy. (National Museum of American History)Pat Nixon’s 1969 inaugural gown was a Mimosa silk satin gown embroidered in gold and silver and encrusted with Austrian crystals. It was designed by Karen Stark for Harvey Berin. (National Museum of American History)Nancy Reagan’s 1981 inaugural gown was a beaded, one-shouldered white sheath gown of lace over silk satin, designed by James Galanos. (National Museum of American History)Laura Bush’s 2001 inaugural gown was a ruby-red gown of crystal-embroidered Chantilly lace over silk georgette, designed by Michael Faircloth. (National Museum of American History)Hillary Clinton's 1993 inaugural gown was a violet beaded lace sheath gown with iridescent blue velvet silk-mousseline overskirt, designed by Sarah Phillips and made by Barbara Matera Ltd., a New York theatrical costume maker. (National Museum of American History)For the 1989 inauguration of George H. W. Bush, Barbara Bush wore this royal blue gown with velvet bodice and asymmetrically draped silk satin skirt, designed by Arnold Scassi. (National Museum of American History)Eleanor Roosevelt wore thisslate-blue silk crepe evening gown, designed by Sally Milgrim, for the 1933 inaugural ball. Embroidered with a leaf-and-flower design in gold thread, it featured detachable long sleeves (not displayed). The belt buckle and shoulder clips are made of rhinestone and moonstone. (National Museum of American History)

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 and Jeremy

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

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