Designers dish on first lady fashion of the past

Jacqueline Kennedy lifts the skirt of her inaugural ball gown as she and her husband, President-elect John F. Kennedy, leave their Georgetown home in the snowfall en route to the inaugural concert in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, 1961.
AP Photo

(CBS News) The inauguration is a big deal, but many Americans are thinking more about the balls Monday night, especially what Michelle Obama will wear.

All that attention can be life-changing for the first lady's designer.

Mrs. Obama's dress four years ago is now in the Smithsonian, along with all the other first lady's first inauguration gowns. It's one of the most popular exhibits.

For Dallas designer Michael Faircloth -- the man behind Laura Bush's first inaugural gown -- the assignment of a lifetime came with a special challenge: he got a late start.

Faircloth recalled, "Mrs. Bush would never, ever look at a sketch, look at a piece of fabric, until the election was totally settled."

In 2000, that took until mid-December when the Supreme Court decided Bush vs. Gore. He said, "I remember sitting up in bed when it was first finally announced, (saying) 'OK, thank heaven we can finally get going.'"

Faircloth called Mrs. Bush the next day to show her sketches he'd been working on in secret. He had about a month to make the dress.

He said he considers everything that the first lady will encounter at the Inaugural Ball, from "how a dress moves, how it dances up and down the stairs."

Faircloth said, "When we were fitting Mrs. Bush at the ranch house you know and looking at the hem of the dress and the flow of the dress, and I said, 'Is it danceable?' And she said, 'Well, we have to dance!' So we went arm-and-arm and waltzed across her kitchen floor."

In creating one of the most visible gowns in the world, designers receive instant recognition. Four years ago, Jason Wu was a relative newcomer when Michelle Obama chose his dress. Bur unlike Faircloth, Wu didn't know he had been selected until America saw Mrs. Obama.

(SOT WU) "I packed up the dress and I flew to Chicago and I hand delivered it on Thanksgiving. And then 2 months later she wore it. I was in my living room having pizza with a couple of friends. And I was like I think that's my dress."

Wu's and Faircloth's dresses are part of history, with a permanent home at the Smithsonian.

Lisa Graddy, curator of the first ladies' exhibit, said, "They're really a walking billboard for the American fashion industry and the inaugural gown is a great time to showcase fashion and American designers."

The gowns date back to 1829. Currently on display is Rosalynn Carter's from 1977, a dress she wore twice before wearing it a third time to her husband's inauguration.

"There were some people that were not happy with that and who criticized her for wearing a dress that she had worn before," Graddy said.

The criticism was because people wanted something new and special, according to Graddy. "The country wants the drama of something new," she said.

Nancy Reagan's glamorous white one-shouldered dress from 1981 is also included in the Smithsonian exhibit, as well as Hillary Clinton's long-sleeve bright purple gown from 1993. And in the center of them all is Michele Obama's from 2009.

The exhibit of the first ladies' gowns helps people gain access, Graddy said. "I think people feel as if they're gaining this personal connection with a woman that they think, they feel, as if they know."

For Jan Crawford's full report, watch the video in the player above.