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A Look Back at First Ladies’ Inaugural Gowns

Like Longfellow Deeds, who in the midst of the Great Depression, went to town (NYC, not Washington) in Capra’s classic “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” to bring about change, the Obamas have headed to Washington in the midst of the recession. Like many Americans, I am hopeful that they will bring about the needed changes and reach out to working Americans just like the hero of Capra’s classic film did during the Depression.

Tonight on the NBC Nightly News, they featured a report on Mrs. Obama and American fashion. As I’ve said before, I believe Michelle Obama is a Recessionista. I love how she publicly mentions the prices of some of the clothes she wears. After all, a good bargain is worth shouting about. She revealed on the Tonight Show that she had chosen J. Crew for her TV appearance rather a higher-priced designer. In another interview, she mentioned that she was wearing a $30 dress from the Gap. She has shown us that fashion can be affordable, accessible, and very stylish.

Tonight on the NBC Evening News, the reporter posed the question, “Will Michelle Obama’s style habits have an impact on American designers and consumers?” To me, the answer is a resounding yes! Witness my own mother running out to Target to purchase the Thakoon trench coat. Now, my dear mother has never bought clothing at Target before in her life. But now she feels like its okay because they have the same designers that Michelle Obama wears. Also, she has been reading how Mrs. Obama shops at the Gap, H&M, and other lower-priced stores and still looks terrific. So now, she’s willing to start checking out these new options. And don’t think she is alone in this thinking.

So what do I expect to see from the new first Lady? A mix of classic styles and a mix of the discount and the high-end. Like Jackie Kennedy with her three-strand pearl necklace (costume jewelry), she will be adding her own classic touches to her everyday dressing. We’ll see everything from her classic sheath dress and pearls look, to taking the kids to school outfits to high-end couture at the Inaugural ball. Its exciting to see someone who obviously enjoys style make smart choices.

Taking a look back at other Inaugural gowns, you can see how they really do set the tone of the times. It’s interesting to look back in the Smithsonian Archives to see First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s Inaugural gown. Her dress is a rather austere lavender (called Eleanor Blue) buttoned up for the times, long ball gown.

Although she was First Lady for three terms, Mrs. Roosevelt only had one Inaugural Ball Gown because FDR canceled the full-on Inaugural balls for his other two terms. Interesting idea, huh?

Compare Mrs. Roosevelt’s gown to Flo Harding’s early 1920s “let the good times roll” gown. This dress has hundreds of tiny beds in elegant patterns sewn into it. I saw it years ago on display at the museum in DC. Truly beautiful.

I couldn’t find a picture of the what the elegant Grace Coolidge wore to her pre-Depression ball. But per a note about the Smithsonian exhibit on CNN.com its noted that she wore “a flapper-like red velvet number.” It’s interesting that Mrs. Coolidge had such stylish clothes when her husband was sometimes called “frugal Cal” and publicly chided for his perceived stinginess by the press. His wife’s clothing allowance may have been his one indulgence.

Having taken a look back at the past, I look forward to Michelle Obama’s fashion journey as First Lady. She’s bringing frugal back with a whole new look. I can’t wait to see her Inaugural choice. As you can see from the above photos, the First Lady’s Inaugural Ball gown does paint a picture of the times and the economy.

Here are some additional resources you might want to check out:

  • Women’s Wear Daily—show of designer sketches for Michelle Obama’s Inaugural gowns
  • Smithsonian Institution—First Ladies’ gowns

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