First-Lady Fashionistas

March 11, 2010

The Smithsonian just announced the addition of a new gallery to the “First Ladies” exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. “First Ladies” has been one of most popular attractions at the Smithsonian for nearly a century (it opened in 1914). The new gallery – “A First Lady’s Debut”- will feature 11 gowns worn by first ladies during the inauguration or beginning of her husband’s presidency, in addition to media coverage that follows the incoming first lady between the election and the inauguration.

There’s little denying that fashion provides an easy and interesting point of entry to talk about the larger role first ladies have played throughout the history of the U.S. We’ve been fascinated with our first ladies since Martha Washington first donned a petticoat, and while their contributions go far beyond Swarovski crystals, silk and satin, a look into these very things provides perspective into what was important during that particular time, what statement the first lady wished to make, and a first lady’s contribution to the presidency.

Each first lady interpreted her role in a slightly different way. Some served in more of a social and ceremonial capacity, while others were more highly visible in the day-to-day government operations and decision-making. Regardless of approach, the first lady’s presence helped to both represent and shape the political and societal landscape during her tenure.

We have extremely high expectations of our first ladies. We require that they strike an extremely delicate balance while in office. Be ladylike but with a strong sense of self. Keep a good household for your family, while advocating for all Americans. Support your husband but don’t be too involved. Choose a cause that you care about but not something that is too controversial. For decades, we have critically looked at our first lady’s appearance, judging her choice of hairstyles, clothes, shoes and handbags on par with her actions or words, and her appearance has come to serve as a reflection and representation of all she – and her husband, the president – stand for.

One of the highlights of the new gallery will be the dress current first lady Michelle Obama wore to the inauguration just over a year ago. There was much buzz about the one-shouldered wonder designed by (then) little-known Chinese-American designer Jason Wu. Mrs. Obama has ignited a fashion-following likened to that of Jackie Kennedy. Quoting LA Times blogger Booth Moore, “Fashion is a business, and Michelle means business.” Her statement, defined through fashion.

The new gallery is sure to keep “First Ladies” at the top of the Smithsonian popularity chart. If you don’t have plans to visit D.C. anytime soon, visit the National Museum of American History web site┬áto view a selection of items on display in the “First Ladies” exhibition, and experience a bit of history through these important moments in time.