The First Ladies at the Smithsonian: more than dresses

Last Friday we were thrilled to open our new exhibition First Ladies at the Smithsonian. The exhibition tells the history of the First Ladies collection, and shows off 14 gowns and over 90 other objects—including china and jewelry—that have been collected by the Smithsonian over the past hundred years. The exhibition also answers some frequently asked questions about the First Ladies collection:

Fl Whose gowns are included in the collection?
The gowns in the collection belonged to the women who acted as the official White House hostesses during presidential administrations. Usually it was the president’s wife. If a president’s wife had died or was unable to serve, he chose a family member or friend to act as his hostess.

Is a first lady required to donate her inaugural ball gown?
The Smithsonian asks each first lady to donate something to represent her in the collection. It has become tradition for that item to be the inaugural ball gown, but it is not required.

Does the Smithsonian own an inaugural ball gown for every first lady?
Each presidential administration is represented in the collection by an article of clothing that belonged to the first lady or the president’s official hostess, but not all are inaugural ball gowns.

If a first lady has two terms, does the Smithsonian collect gowns from both inaugurals’ balls?
Although Ida McKinley’s second inaugural ball gown and three gowns worn by Eleanor Roosevelt to inaugural festivities are part of the collection, the Smithsonian usually collects only the gown from the first inaugural ball. The second gown is often exhibited at the presidential library.

Why aren’t all of the gowns on exhibit?
Light, climate, and gravity are all harmful to fabric. Over time, they have damaged the gowns. There are some gowns that can no longer be exhibited because they were too badly damaged by their years on display. Other dresses are rotated on and off display in order to keep them in good condition.

Are the gowns altered?
Each mannequin is custom-made to fit and support the gown. The Smithsonian does not alter the gowns.

Do you exhibit reproductions of the gowns?
The Smithsonian sometimes reproduces portions of a gown to complete it for exhibition but does not exhibit gowns that are entire reproductions.

Which is the oldest gown in the collection?
The oldest gown in the collection belonged to Martha Washington. The oldest inaugural gown in the collection belonged to Andrew Jackson’s niece, Emily Donelson, who wore it to his 1829 inaugural ball.

Megan Smith serves as educator on the First Ladies exhibition team and covets Helen Taft’s beaded gown.

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