50 Years of Inaugural Fashion: What the First Ladies Wore and Why

The Inaugural Ball is one of the First Lady's first official appearance in that role. And whether we like it or not, what she wears pkats an integral part in shaping her public image for those four years to come. So how did the First Ladies of the last 50 years deal with such an opportunity or, in some cases, such a challenge?
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The Inaugural Ball is one of the First Lady's first official appearance in that role. And whether we like it or not, what she wears pkats an integral part in shaping her public image for those four years to come. So how did the First Ladies of the last 50 years deal with such an opportunity or, in some cases, such a challenge?
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The Inaugural Ball is one of the First Lady's first official appearance in that role. And whether we like it or not, what she wears plays an integral part in shaping her public image for those four years to come.

So how did the First Ladies of the last 50 years deal with such an opportunity or, in some cases, such a challenge?

We spoke with fashion journalist and author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style Kate Betts as well as Parsons fashion history professor Beth Dincuff. With their help and expertise, we've taken a thoughtful look back at the past 50 years of Inaugural Ball fashion and how it has defined the Presidency, the First Lady, and the nation.

Read on.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Jackie Kennedy, 1961

What She Wore: A white gown and cape she designed herself in collaboration with Bergdorf Goodman's Ethan Frankau.

What it Meant: When Jackie came to the White House in 1961, she was already widely recognized as one of the most fashionable ladies in political society and, at just 32, she was also one of the youngest First Ladies in recent history--two facts her daring gown and cape perfectly underscored. That she actually had a hand in designing the outfit speaks not only to her fashion savvy but also her control over her public image. "She knew exactly how she wanted to look, what she wanted to wear, and how she wanted to present herself," Betts said. "Not every First Lady has that."

According to Betts, Jackie, as one of the first First Ladies to be televised in that role, took the new media into consideration when she dressed. "She used her style to telegraph her message in a way that was highly calculated for television."

She chose pale colors that would look good in black-and-white and made an effort to choose slightly unconventional looks so that you could pick her out in a crowd. During the Inaugural Day parade, for instance, Jackie wore a cloth coat despite the cold temperatures. She might have been freezing, but in a sea of fur coats, which was the standard cold-weather outerwear for ladies at the time, she certainly stood out. "She seemed younger and fresh, dressed in a way that was not conventional."

Sitting next to (from left to right) Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie certainly stood out at Inaugural Parade

Sitting next to (from left to right) Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie certainly stood out at Inaugural Parade

Photo: LBJ Library

Photo: LBJ Library

Lady Bird Johnson, 1965

What She Wore: A yellow gown designed by John Moore, a pearl necklace and white gloves.

What it Meant: Lady Bird Johnson probably had the most difficult task of all First Ladies when selecting her Inaugural Ball outfit. Held just a year after JFK's assassination, the usually celebratory event was bittersweet: There was sadness, but it was also important to convey a sense of hope. Lady Bird's yellow gown, a color associated with light and optimism, symbolized this beautifully.

"It was a difficult Inauguration and I think she was trying to send an optimistic message in a difficult time," Betts said.

Dincuff agrees, though she added that the classic conservative gown also showed the nation that Lady Bird would be a very different First Lady from Jackie Kennedy. Jackie, who despite having worn American designers, was known for her Francophile tastes and for looking to the Parisian runways for inspiration. That Lady Bird chose to wear John Moore, an American designer who, despite having dressed Marilyn Monroe, was still relatively under-the-radar, was according to Dincuff "making a statement in itself."

"Lady Bird was a very all-American First Lady and you could not doubt that her tastes were very American, very Texas, which she made clear at the Inaugural Ball."

Photo: NewNixon.org

Photo: NewNixon.org

Pat Nixon, 1969

What She Wore: Karen Stark for Harvey Berin

What It Meant: Like Lady Bird, Nixon chose to wear yellow to her husband's Inauguration. "I think yellow is a good choice of color for a First Lady to wear to the Inauguration," Dincuff said. "It's cheerful, it's sunny. It's neutral when you're talking about political party colors. Yellow is more of a uniting color."

Photo: Jimmy Carter Library

Photo: Jimmy Carter Library

Rosalynn Carter, 1977

What She Wore: Gold-embroidered sleeveless coat over a gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown, both designed by Mary Matise for Jimmae and purchased off the rack.

What It Meant: Rosalynn is remembered as sending one of the most powerful messages of all First Ladies with her Inaugural Ball look. With the country in the grips of an oil crisis and still in an economic slump, Rosalynn opted to re-wear the dress she'd worn to her husband's Inauguration as Governor of Georgia.

"She, more than most [First Ladies], made a very pointed gesture with her dress. She was saying 'I don't care about this, it's not important to me while the country is in a recession." Betts explained.

"It wasn't a fashion statement," said Dincuff. "It was a political and social statement."

However, for some of Rosalynn's contemporaries, the well-meaning statement backfired. "Her dress raised a lot of criticism because people felt like she wasn't taking the role as First Lady and the tradition of the inaugural gown and how that symbolized the First Lady's role as a hostess seriously," Betts explained.

Photo: Ronald Reagan Library

Photo: Ronald Reagan Library

Nancy Reagan, 1981

What She Wore: White, one-shoulder gown by James Galanos

What it Meant: The Reagans ushered in a new era of glamour to the White House--and Nancy's white, one-shouldered dress by American designer James Galanos, widely considered to be one of the world's foremost 20th century couturiers, made no doubt about that. "They were Hollywood," Betts said, simply.

A one-shouldered gown has proven to be a popular choice for First Ladies because, as Dincuff says, "it's a sophisticated look, halfway between strapless and covered up. It works well for women over the age of thirty."

Photo: Courtesy of George H Bush Library

Photo: Courtesy of George H Bush Library

Barbara Bush, 1989

What She Wore: Royal blue velvet and taffeta Arnold Scaasi gown and pearls

What It Meant: Both Betts and Dincuff agree that color is a powerful way to send a message. So what was Barbara trying to say when she wore a striking royal blue gown to the Inauguration of her husband, a Republican?

Perhaps it was a subtle nod towards bi-partisanship--a cause which her husband continued to champion after his presidency. Or it may have been meant to leave a regal impression. The pearls' message, however, is clearer: "Pearls are very ladylike, very proper, but at the same time, relatable," Dincuff said. "Not everyone can afford pearls, but definitely most people can't afford diamonds."

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Hillary Clinton, 1993

What She Wore: A purple, long-sleeved gown by Rock designer Sarah Phillips

What It Meant: Hillary made a wise choice donning purple, a color that is both neutral and powerful, with royal connotations. She also made a statement by eschewing big-name designers for little-known Sarah Phillips, whose designs she came across at a boutique in Little Rock, Arkansas. "There is a message in there that 'we're not going to forget where our roots are,'" Dincuff said. "It's a nice gesture especially with the first inauguration to honor how much support that state has given you through your husband's career."

It may not have been fashionable per se, but the message was on point.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Hillary Clinton, 1997

What She Wore: A gold cape over a gold long sleeve gown, both designed by Oscar de la Renta

What It Meant: Clinton, in terms of her style, is very divisive. Betts blames her inconsistency: "Hillary came to the White House without an understanding of her own style, in terms of what she wanted to wear and the message she wanted to send. She let other people define her style for her." This was probably one of those occasions.

"That cape reminds me of the cape that Jackie wore, that's probably where the idea came," said Betts. But Jackie and Hillary were two entirely different people with two very different styles. Unfortunately, the result was that Hillary came off looking uncomfortable and not quite herself.

Dincuff agreed that Hillary's second Inaugural look wasn't one of her favorites, but added "the cape was a nice nod to tradition and Jackie Kennedy. It's sophisticated and stately. And also ceremonial. A cape has a sense of ceremony, and the Inauguration is a huge ceremony for this country."

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Laura Bush, 2001

What She Wore: A bright red gown designed by Michael Faircloth and pearls

What it Meant: Like Hillary, Laura opted for a local designer from her homestate of Texas. She also wore pearls like her mother-in-law Barbara, the message there being as much about classic, conservative style as carrying on the Bush tradition. That she wore bright red showed both patriotism and party-pride.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Laura Bush, 2001

What She Wore: Silver long-sleeved Oscar de la Renta gown.

What It Meant: For her second Inaugural Ball, Laura, like Hillary, chose to wear Oscar de la Renta, master of ball gowns and a far cry from the little known designers they wore for their first Inauguration.

"They're more comfortable on the world stage at the second Inaugural Ball," Dincuff said. "And I think it's also a way of recognizing the fashion industry at large, how important the industry is how much money it generates. They need to wear a bigger name designer to do that. "

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Michelle Obama, 2008

What She Wore: A white, one-shoulder gown by Jason Wu

What It Meant: Both Dincuff and Betts think Michelle had one of the most successful Inaugural Ball appearances of all First Ladies. Considering that hope was such an important part of Obama's platform, Michelle couldn't have chosen a better dress.

"The white dress which looked almost like a wedding dress, symbolized a fresh start, new beginnings in a very innocent optimistic moment."

It also highlighted the Obama's undeniable chemistry and charisma as a couple--something that has endeared them to the public over his Presidency. "I don't think people thought she would wear something so ethereal and romantic and white," Betts said. It sent the message that beyond the political titles and victories, Michelle and Barack were husband and wife--an image relatable and aspirational to the public.

Her bare arms, and the fact that she chose a relatively unknown designer, established her as a modern, confident woman.

Now the question is, what will Michelle wear for her second Inaugural Ball? Dincuff said she doesn't think she'll wear white, and Betts suggested she could rewear a dress. Both agree whoever she wears will be an American designer. Now the only thing left to do is wait until tomorrow.