‘Inaugurating’ a new style

Among the many questions that will be facing the new Biden Administration is WWDJBW – What will Dr. Jill Biden wear?

While the world has far more pressing concerns, fashionistas will be keeping an eye on what Biden – and groundbreaking Vice President-elect Kamala Harris – wears on Inauguration Day and to the Inaugural Ball. Already Vogue – whose latest cover, on Harris, has sparked controversy https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/style/kamala-harris-vogue.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage — has taken note of Biden’s crisp, approachable style, observing in a Nov. 11 blog post:

“Her dark green Brandon Maxwell shirtdress (for her speech at the Democratic National Convention) conveyed poise and capability. The elegant but unassuming Oscar de la Renta dress she chose for husband Joe Biden’s (presidential) acceptance speech…once again telegraphed a chic, yet down-to-earth sensibility.”

But many of us also fondly recall the Reem Acra notched strapless red gown she rocked as second lady at one of the balls for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. So, hopes are high.

Whatever ensemble and evening gown Biden chooses to wear for Inauguration Day, she will undoubtedly follow in a tradition that began with Helen Taft and has continued through to Melania Trump – the donation of her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of first ladies’ dresses.

Actually, it doesn’t have to be the inaugural gown as all the Smithsonian has asked for since the collection was established in 1912 is for a dress. (Thus the collection is a mix of dresses the first ladies wore during their husbands’ administrations and inaugural gowns. While every first lady is represented beginning with Martha Washington, the oldest inaugural gown in the collection belonged to Emily Donelson, who wore it to her uncle Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inauguration and served as his official hostess, her aunt and Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson, having died right after his election.)

It was, however, Helen Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft and a first lady of many firsts, who got the collection ball rolling with the gown she wore to her husband’s 1909 inauguration – a creamy Empire-style crowd-pleaser with a flattering square neck, lace collar and short sleeves to show off her long white gloves.

As with Taft, first ladies would donate their inaugural gowns or important dresses after they left the White House. But such was the public clamor for Mamie Eisenhower’s pink silk sleeveless, V-neck confection, with its 2,000 rhinestones and classic 1950s-style full skirt, that it was on display when she inaugurated the new First Ladies Hall in 1955 during her husband Dwight D.’s first term. (For those first ladies who have two inaugural ball gowns, the Smithsonian generally takes the first, with the second often going to their husbands’ presidential libraries.)

Eisenhower would be succeeded by one of the most fashionable first ladies, Jacqueline B. Kennedy, who designed the sleeveless ivory sheath and matching cape, created by Bergdorf Goodman, that dazzled at her husband John F.’s snowy inaugural ball. (Many fashion observers thought there was more than a hint of Kennedy’s elegance in Melania Trump’s powder blue Inauguration Day suit, with its Empire-style jacket, by Ralph Lauren Collection and in her creamy, off-the-shoulder, slit column ball gown by Hervé Pierre, whose full-length ruffle evoked everything from a lily to Art Nouveau.)

Kennedy’s successor, Lady Bird Johnson, instituted the practice of presenting the gown at a ceremony when she donated her 1965 yellow inaugural ball gown to the Smithsonian’s new Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History).

Rosalynn Carter would open the ceremony to the public when she presented the Smithsonian with the shimmering pale blue and gold gown – distinguished by flowing sleeves, fitted at the wrist – she wore to husband Jimmy’s 1977 inauguration. But Carter’s gown – which she had previously worn to her husband’s two inaugurations as Georgia’s governor – was considered a miss by some fashion observers. Still, it underscored the notion that an inaugural gown sets and crystallizes a first lady’s sartorial style, with Carter’s reflecting an economical approach to clothes that is now fashion-forward.

Often the first lady’s Inauguration Day outfit and ball gown feature jewel colors that denote power – blue (Barbara Bush), red (Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush), purple (Hillary Clinton), with white (Reagan) and gold (Clinton and Laura Bush) also coming into play.

In 2009, Michelle Obama mixed it up with a striking tennis-ball green ensemble by Isabel Toledo for husband Barack’s 2009 inauguration, then paid homage to first ladies past, who often wore white evening dress, with the textured white goddess gown that put American designer Jason Wu on the map. (Four years later, Obama would turn to Wu again, this time for a red gown that was the bold yang to the white gown’s pristine yin and underscored a first lady’s responsibility to support fashions made in the USA.)

Now it’s Biden’s and Harris’ turn to demonstrate once again that the clothes don’t make the woman. The woman makes the clothes.

– Georgette Gouveia

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