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The Inaugural Gowns of America’s First Ladies Over the Years

Photo Credit: JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images and JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images and JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images and JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images and JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

Inauguration day is quite an important one in the career of US presidents. It’s also an occasion for the first ladies to express themselves through their clothing and style. For over a century, America’s first ladies have been donating the gowns they wore to their husbands’ inaugurations, and the Smithsonian now has a sizeable collection of them. Here are a few of the most memorable looks over the years.

Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower in a white gown
Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural dress was covered in rhinestones. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Mamie Eisenhower’s husband, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was first inaugurated in 1953. She chose to wear a beautiful light pink peau-de-soie gown designed by Nettie Rosenstein for the occasion.

The A-line dress that featured a deep neckline was covered in over 2,000 hand-sewn rhinestones and Mamie paired it with matching gloves and complementary jewelry. Her handbag was also covered in rhinestones, and her shoes had her name printed on them.

Jackie Kennedy

Jackie and John Kennedy in fancy dress arm in arm
Jackie Kennedy wore an off-white dress to her husband’s inauguration. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy was already known as a fashion icon when she attended her husband, John F. Kennedy’s, inauguration ball in 1961. Always unpredictable yet style-savvy, Jackie chose to wear an off-white, sleeveless chiffon dress with a silk top that was designed by Ethel Frankau.

The real showstopper was a matching cape. It tied at the neckline and draped down, with openings for her arms to come through. The intricate pearl beading that adorned the cape matched the pearl beading on the dress.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln in a fancy dress
Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, dressed for his inauguration. (Photo Credit: Library Of Congress / Getty Images)

Mary Todd Lincoln loved to splurge on her wardrobe and she made that clear when she attended Abraham Lincoln‘s inauguration ball in 1861. Much to her husband’s distaste, she spared no expense on her outfits. Mary Todd wore a full ballgown to the event, complete with a flower sash and crown.

The dress was an off-the-shoulder number that had several layered frills lining the bottom of the skirt, with floral accents to match the sash and crown. To complete the look, Mrs. Lincoln wore gloves and elegant jewelry.

Lady Bird Johnson

A portrait of Lady Bird Johnson in a yellow dress beside a photo of the yellow coat she wore overtop on a mannequin
Lady Bird Johnson wore yellow to symbolize hope. (Photo Credit: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain and Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress Catalog / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson chose to make a statement with the dress she wore to her husband, Lyndon Johnson’s, second inauguration in 1965. LBJ become president after the assassination of the late John F. Kennedy, and as such, the first lady believed yellow was the best color for the dress as it symbolized hope.

Her dress was satin with a high neckline and capped sleeves. She paired the gown with gloves that stretched far above her elbows and an elegant pearl necklace. Instead of wearing a traditional coat, Lady Bird opted for a brown fur-sleeved shawl in a matching yellow.

Rosalynn Carter

Portrait of Rosalynn and Amy Carter beside a photo of Rosalynn's dress on display
Rosalynn Carter’s inauguration dress caused a lot of stir in the media. (Photo Credit: Unknown author / U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain and JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images)

The gown Rosalynn Carter chose to wear to her husband, Jimmy Carter‘s, inauguration in 1977 raised a lot of questions from the media. This was because she’d actually worn the gown previously, to her husband’s inauguration as the governor of Georgia, in 1971. Reporters went into a frenzy as they discussed how important the first lady was to the fashion industry.

Regardless of being worn on repeat, the dress was still gorgeous. The gold-trimmed blue chiffon number was designed by Mary Matise and had a gold and blue overcoat to match. The sleeves of the dress were translucent and it had a gold T-shaped neckline.

Helen Taft

Portrait of Helen Taft
First Lady Helen Herron Taft wearing the dress she wore to her husband’s inauguration. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG / Getty Images)

Helen Taft was the person who encouraged the creation of the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian. Beginning the tradition, she donated the dress she wore to her husband, William Howard Taft’s, 1909 inauguration.

The dress was a white silk chiffon number covered in floral embroidery and accompanied by a lengthy train. The fabric was detailed with appliqués and sewn-on rhinestones, and the sleeves had crystals hanging from them. The neckline was unique in that it was square, and Helen paired the beautiful gown with elbow gloves and a matching lace choker.

Nancy Reagan

Nancy and Ronald Reagan dancing together in fancy dress beside a photo of her dress on display
Wife Nancy wore a bedazzled dress to her husband’s inaugural ball. (Photo Credit: Dirck Halstead / Getty Images and JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images)

Nancy Reagan dressed to impress for her husband, Ronald Reagan‘s, inauguration ball in 1981. The New York Times called his ball the “most lavish” thus far. Of course, she had no issue looking amazing.

Nancy wore a white, tightly fitted one-shoulder gown. It had rose designs made of silk satin all over and was covered in beads and lace. Designed by James Galanos, elements of the outfit perfectly coordinated with her husband’s attire that night, including above-the-elbow gloves that matched his tux shirt and bowtie.

Pat Nixon

A portrait of Pat Nixon in her inaugural dress beside a photo of the dress on display
Pat Nixon chose to wear yellow to the inauguration ball as well. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images and JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

Pat Nixon chose to wow guests at her husband, Richard Nixon’s, inauguration ball in 1969. This mimosa-colored silk satin dress certainly did the trick. It was designed by Karen Stark and had intricate detailing of silver and gold embroidery on the waist and a bolero-type upper portion.

Along with the embroidery were Austrian crystals sewn into the top. Pat chose to pair the glamorous dress with a yellow purse, yellow shows, and white gloves.

Edith Roosevelt

Portrait of Edith Roosevelt
Full-length portrait of Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt wearing the dress she wore to her husband’s inauguration. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Edith Roosevelt wore a detailed lace gown to her husband, Theodore Roosevelt‘s, inauguration in 1905. The dress was long and made of silk with a lace bodice on top. The sleeves draped down her arms and she also wore a lengthy train. Mrs. Roosevelt paired the gown with jewelry and a crocheted fan.

When the Smithsonian came looking for a donation from Edith, she didn’t have much to offer, as she tended to “reinvent” her dresses after wear. Once she was finished with a gown, she would rip it apart and use the materials to create new dresses and other outfits. The bottom half of her inaugural dress was donated to the Smithsonian with a professional recreating the bodice.

Jill Biden

Jill Biden donating her dress, left, and on Inauguration Day, right
Jill Biden has donated her inaugural dresses to the Smithsonian in the tradition of previous First Ladies. (Photo Credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images and Alex Brandon-Pool / Getty Images

Jill Biden is the latest first lady to donate her dress to the Smithsonian following her husband, Joe Biden’s, inauguration in 2021. She donated the two outfits she wore that day.

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The first is a blue tweed dress detailed with Swarovski crystals at the neckline. A matching coat decorated with velvet cuffs and lapel joined the donation, with Jill choosing to pair the outfit with a color-matching face mask. The second dress she wore in the evening. It’s a white long-sleeved number with floral accent at the neckline. It was paired with a matching coat with floral embroidery detailing the bottom seam.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!