Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  November 24, 2017

The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection

Victoria Haddock


‘… giving the public a most valuable collection of historic costumes of the great women of our country of whom we are so justly proud.’(1)


On the 20th October 2017 the current First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump, donated the ivory, silk crepe column Hervé Pierre gown that she wore to the Inaugural Ball to the Smithsonian First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.


The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection contains more than a 1,000 objects of political memorabilia, photographs, personal items and the famous display of inaugural gowns and dresses that have been on exhibition to the public since 1914. In 2016 more than four million visitors passed through the First Ladies Collection. As the collection has grown curators have repeatedly reimagined the exhibition to ‘explore the mix of celebrity and achievement, fashion, and power that makes the history of the first ladies endlessly fascinating to visitors.’(2)


The collection began when the well-connected Washington society figure, Cassie Mason Myers Julian-James, a frequent donor to the Smithsonian, exhibited her collection of historic American dress belonging to her grandmother. Mrs. James soon became a volunteer curator, soliciting support and items from her many friends to expand the exhibition. When Rose Gouverneur Hoes, President James Monroe’s great-granddaughter, gifted Monroe family items an idea was developed for a gallery of women’s clothing featuring ‘costumes of the ladies of the White House.’(3) Some of the presidential families contacted by James and Hoes were reluctant to participate. First Lady Edith Roosevelt refused to donate a gown to the exhibition stating that ‘she could not understand why the public was clamoring for her dress.’(4) However, by the time the Collection of Period Costumes exhibition opened to the public on the 1st February 1914 James and Hoes had received gowns donated by the families and friends of fifteen former first ladies.


The curator of the Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection exhibition, Lisa Kathleen Graddy, said that the tradition began with First Lady Helen Taft in 1912. Her support of the instantly popular exhibition, and the donation of the Frances Smith Company gown that she wore to her husband’s inaugural ball in 1909, prompted others to loan and donate missing gowns. Helen Taft’s donation set a precedent and since then it has become customary for the first lady to donate the gown that she wore for her husband’s inaugural ball for the public to view at the Smithsonian.


In 1931 the ever expanding collection moved to a more spacious gallery, which enabled the curator, Margaret Brown (later Klapthor), to draw on the popularity of period rooms to create a display where lifelike mannequins were exhibited in sets modelled after historic rooms in the White House. Klapthor approached the expanding collection from a decorative arts perspective and included more jewellery and White House furnishings to depict ‘the changing style of the White House and the evolving social role of the first lady,’(5) yet the gowns remained the main attraction for many. With the public’s desire to view Mamie Eisenhower’s rhinestone embellished Nettie Rosenstein inaugural gown, Klapthor began a new tradition. Instead of waiting for the Eisenhowers to leave the White House, Kalpthor displayed the gown in the exhibition whilst Mamie Eisenhower was still first lady and also asked her to attend the formal opening of the renovated galleries in 1955.


In 1992, a striking new exhibition was developed by curator Edith Mayo. ‘First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image’, based on political and social American history, shifted focus away from clothes and to the first ladies’ work with the inclusion of campaign buttons and souvenirs to examine the women’s roles as ‘social advocates, hostesses, political campaigners, and presidential partners,’(6) over the past 200 years. The most recent installation, ‘First Ladies’, pairs an exploration of the differing approach that first ladies take to their role with an examination of the continuing public interest in the clothes that they wear.


The oldest dress in the collection is a hand-painted silk taffeta gown worn by the wife of the first president, Martha Washington, in the 1780s. My personal favourite in the collection is a yellow silk evening gown designed by Oleg Cassini for Jacqueline Kennedy; a prime example of ‘The Jackie Look’ that saw the first ladies’ clothes copied to be sold in stores across America, allowing women the chance to dress like a first lady.


The National Museum of American History is open 10am to 5pm every day except 25th December. Admission is always free and no tickets are required.

The Museum is located on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue, N.W., between 12th and 14th Streets, Washington D.C.



(1)-(6) Graddy, L.K. and Pastan, A. (2014). The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection. Washington, Smithsonian Books.

  • First Ladies’ gowns displayed in the Collection of Period Costumes exhibition, circa 1930 ©National Museum of American History Smithsonian I
  • The First Ladies Collection in 1964 ©National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institute
  • Michelle Obama donating her Jason Wu Inaugural Ball gown in 2010 ©National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institute
  • The First Ladies Collection in 2011©National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institute
  • Jacqueline Kennedy’s Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Custom Salon designed Inaugural gown, 1961 ©IrishCentral