“The First Ladies” Exhibition Opens at National Museum of American History

New Display of Nearly Century-Old Collection
November 17, 2011
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open “The First Ladies,” a display that showcases premier objects from the nearly century-old First Ladies Collection, Nov. 19. For decades the First Ladies Collection has been one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian.

The exhibition features 26 dresses and more than 160 other objects, ranging from those of Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, and includes White House china, personal possessions and other objects from the Smithsonian’s unique collection of first ladies’ materials, established in 1912. Among the dresses displayed in the exhibition are Grace Coolidge’s flapper-style evening gown, Jackie Kennedy’s yellow-silk gown worn to the Kennedy administration’s first state dinner in 1961 and Eleanor Roosevelt’s slate blue crepe gown, which she wore to the 1933 inaugural ball.

“The original first ladies exhibition presented in 1914 was the first at the Smithsonian to prominently feature women,” said Marc Pachter, interim museum director. “Today we continue to showcase the collection, but we delve deeper into the changing role of women through the contributions of America’s first ladies as well as examine the ongoing debate in American history over what level of style is appropriate in a democratic culture.”

“The First Ladies” is made possible by generous support from Lifetime Television and The Elizabeth Carolyn Lux Foundation.

The museum is opening this gallery in anticipation of a renovation to the west exhibition wing of the building, which previously housed the First Ladies Collection. The renovation will renew 120,000 square feet and calls for new galleries, an education center, public plazas for programs, a new first-floor window wall and a Hall of Music. The museum will phase the closing of exhibitions on the west side of the building and anticipates that a construction contract will be in place by spring 2012.

First ladies are unofficial but critical members of presidential administrations. For more than 200 years the public has judged their clothes, their parties, their projects and their roles in the White House. The exhibition examines this in four main sections:

The Fashionable First Lady explores the public’s interest in the first ladies’ fashions. Only a few first ladies have become fashion icons, inspiring trends and promoting American designers, but all have had their wardrobes scrutinized by the American public, continuing the debate over what is “appropriate” for presidential style.

The Nation’s Hostess looks at the role that the First Lady has played for the nation and the presidential administrations. Each reception or dinner is an opportunity for the First Lady to help build America’s international relationships, win political friends and public support for the President, or further his administration’s legislative agenda. Each First Lady puts her own stamp on presidential hospitality.

Inauguration and Opportunities looks at the inauguration of a President as a time of optimism and new beginnings. In addition to attending ceremonies and balls, incoming first ladies announce the agendas and special projects they intend to pursue. Some projects are ambitious. Some are traditional. Some may be controversial.

Changing Times, Changing First Ladies highlights Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson, who all fashioned their own ways of handling the White House, families, parties and politics. Over different times and circumstances they crafted significant roles for themselves that they believed would allow them to best serve the President and the country.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).