Wednesday, May 13, 2009

First Ladies, Gowns & The Smithsonian Exhibit

First Ladies formal wear, part of the presidential inaugural festivities, extend their natural lives mounted behind glass at the National Museum of American History as part of the Smithsonian for visitors too ooh and ah over or recoil in fashion terror. Almost one hundred years ago, before women had the right to vote, the first donation for curating for an exhibition, "Collection of Period Costumes" focused on women, arrived from First Lady Helen Taft's 1909 inaugural debut. Better known as Nellie to intimates, she was a big social drinker - even during Prohibition and staunch guardian angel of her husband's political ambitions. Mrs. Taft rocked the nation by riding next to him in the inaugural parade. Her gift of gown aided the evolution of what is now known as the "First Ladies Collection" of which the gowns displayed are a mainstay, augmented with more relics, from White house china to bumper stickers, from a first lady's time in the White House. (Nellie Taft's White House portrait)
Lisa Kathleen Graddy is the current curator of the Smithsonian's First Ladies Exhibit, now entitled - after a December 2008 reopening in its third iteration - First Ladies at the Smithsonian. There were a flurry of anxious calls to the Smithsonian after the Obama inauguration to ascertain the exact date Michelle's dress would make its debut. Certainly the Smithsonian has written a formal request to the first lady for a particular list of items. At least two of the potential items are still in use by Michelle Obama, the Kelly green Jimmy Choo's and the cardigan she wore under the Isabel Toledo's lemon grass ensemble for the swearing in and walk along the parade route.

The now famous Jason Wu white gown will take a year or more before it is ready. Little/big/Oh My details have to be worked out. For one, the mannequins in the display cases feature custom made forms that are more white for featuring the dress. What do you do with Mrs. Obama's form - even if it is headless?

Meanwhile the Smithsonian is on a quest for something related to the Obama Inaugural. So far, the Queen of Soul has not yet felt a convincing argument to release the bow-tie crystal-encrusted wonder into the annals of hat history at the famed institution.

Aretha Franklin singing My Country Tis of Thee, Photo courtesy AP
The exhibition of First Lady doo dads and duds is arguably one of the most visited. What is fascinating is what happens during conservation of the gowns and other accouterments. Fans fluttered by some first ladies are rather ornate. Jewelry ranging from Jackie Kennedy's pearls to handbags and matching shoes have a place inside the display cases. Photos or letters describing the gowns or what happened to them are checked and verified in minute detail. Even the detail that Rosalynn Carter took austerity measures and wore a gown she unearthed from when her husband was sworn-in as Georgia's governor - twice before - shall not go unremarked.
Rosalynn Carter (1977) Hillary Clinton (1993)
Through the ages, many first lady gowns went to family members who repurposed them for wedding dresses or day wear. Mary Todd Lincoln's vertical striped dress with little purple flowers was updated for day wear by a family member and the lace collar removed compared to photographic evidence. Frances Cleveland's second inaugural dress became the family wedding dress and Martha Washington's silk frock had some fiddling done to the collar section. Practical Eleanor Roosevelt went synthetic with Arnold Constable designing the rayon crepe in a pinkish rose color. There may be something instructional here as Mrs. Obama's section is thought out because Eleanor Roosevelt height needed an adjustment to be made to her form to give it the right statuesque proportions to showcase the ensemble properly. Of course, Mamie Eisenhower wore her signature color - pink - in 1953 (pictured left). I must confess the only dress I remembered was the violet Susan Philip's gown Hillary Clinton wore because I liked it. (Photos courtesy of National Museum of American History)

In Elizabeth Mayo's curation for first lady gowns, the mannequin's featured heads. Because of the beaded lace work on some of the gowns many feature arms, but but not hands in the most recent edition on display. There are 14 gowns on display at any given time due to the need to preserve some of the more fragile ones that are unavailable for featuring permanently. Another interesting factoid is the gown the Smithsonian wants most is the one from the first inaugural. Should the president get re-elected the second gown is usually found at their presidential library for more modern presidents.


Post a Comment