Dressed to thrill: Inaugural ball gowns

Inaugural gowns

Rita Braver has the story about first impressions -- and a fashion tradition:

“They’re on the world stage, every camera that’s available will be here photographing the inauguration and that first dance in the inaugural gown,” said Ann Stock. She should know; as a former White House social secretary and a former Bloomingdale’s executive, she believes that inaugural gowns tell an important story.

It’s the history of who we are,” Stock told Braver. “it’s our humanity and our history unfolding before us.”

And so, the “First Ladies” collection at the National Museum of American History is one of the the most popular exhibits in the whole Smithsonian. 

Rita Braver visits the National Museum of American History’s “First Ladies” exhibit. CBS News

One of the earliest Inaugural gowns in the collection was worn in 1905 by Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore.

“This would have been a very corseted dress, a very formal dress.  She was a very formal person,” said curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy.

Lady Bird Johnson’s inaugural gown. Hugh Talman/National Museum of American History

And, Graddy says, sixty years later, Lady Bird Johnson’s fur-trimmed gown gown was equally of its time.

“Can you imagine someone wearing fur trim today?” asked Braver.

“Oh, not now,” replied Graddy. “It’s also said that LBJ suggested that she put sable on the sleeves, that he told her, ‘Bird, you need to dress it up some.’”

Fashion icon Jacqueline Kennedy helped design her own ensemble, now so fragile it’s usually kept in storage.

“It was such an elegant piece over that beautiful creamy, chiffony gown,” Graddy said.

There is also Mamie Eisenhower’s pink, sparkly rhinestone gown, and the purse she carried with it.

Graddy showed Braver Bess Truman’s inaugural gown. Braver asked, “Why is it here in the closet?”

“Because Bess didn’t like it.”

“It’s definitely a very matronly look.”

“Well, but she was a matronly lady.”

The dresses often have sentimental meaning: Hillary Clinton’s gown was designed by an Arkansan, Laura Bush’s by a Texan. Rosalynn Carter recycled an ensemble she loved from her husband’s gubernatorial inaugural. 

And sometimes there are surprising parallels, such as Nancy Reagan’s gown, echoes of which are in Michelle Obama’s.

“it’s amazing,” Graddy said. “We have these two beautiful, one-shouldered, white beaded glittering dresses, but with very different silhouettes.”

So what will former model Melania Trump wear? It’s still a state secret. But Ann Stock believes, “I absolutely think that it will be an American designer and it will be made in America.”

Braver asked, “Do you have any particular advice for the Trumps as they go into this?”

“The first thing is to have fun and enjoy it,” Stock replied.  “And I’d say to everybody, wear comfortable shoes.”

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