The inaugural gown worn by the first lady offers an initial hint about her fashion sense and over the centuries has helped indicate the tone that the incoming administration might adopt.
The role of the first lady is not clearly defined under U.S. law, and each presidential spouse has charted her own course for the time she has lived at the White House. Inaugural festivities, including official balls featuring dancing, are a customary way the first lady makes her debut to the nation.
At the first inaugural ball in 1809, President James Madison’s wife, Dolley Madison, set a precedent by choosing American attire — a buff-colored velvet gown and pearl jewelry — instead of wearing diamonds like a queen.
“She purposely created an American wardrobe, an American style, that was appropriate” for her time and culture, which disdained royalty, said Jane Hampton Cook, an author and presidential historian.
Melania Trump, a former fashion model, is expected to make her own strong statement with fashion. The Slovenian-born Trump will be the second first lady to be born abroad, after London-born Louisa Adams, and is likely to bring art and glamour to the White House, Cook said.
“She is uniquely positioned because she is a former model, so she understands fashion very well and how to use it to create a certain image,” Cook said.
First ladies serve as the official hostess of the presidential administration. Many have also adopted special projects or charitable causes to promote during their time in the White House.
Why are we so interested in what the first lady wears?
“We feel a proprietary interest in the first lady. She belongs to us, and she represents us, so we feel that we have a right to decide if she’s appropriate,” said Lisa Kathleen Graddy, deputy chair and curator of the division of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The museum features a popular collection of first ladies’ gowns in an exhibition about the evolving role of the first lady. Each first lady usually donates her inaugural gown to the museum.
“We look especially to that gown to get an idea of whether she’s going to be formal, informal, trendy, classic, glamorous and what that might say about the way the administration will be,” Graddy said.
When first lady Nancy Reagan wore a glamorous, beaded, one-shoulder inaugural gown at a white-tie inaugural ball in 1981, you knew the Reagan administration was going to be more formal than the Jimmy Carter administration, which was more consciously casual, Graddy said.
Rosalynn Carter wore a gown for the inaugural ball that she had previously worn for her husband’s inaugural ball as Georgia governor, making a sentimental choice to wear it again, Graddy said. Carter was surprised that some people looked askance at that, having expected her to promote American fashion and choose a new outfit, Graddy said.
The museum will send a letter in early 2017 to Melania Trump requesting an outfit to represent her in the collection.
“We will remind her the public is endlessly fascinated with the inaugural gowns,” Graddy said. “Once it gets here, we handle it with white gloves and definite protocols for how it can and can’t be handled. It’s a national treasure once it’s here.”
This article was written by freelance writer Kathleen Murphy.