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New dresses, new traditions: Jill Biden’s inaugural ensembles go on view

Today first lady Jill Biden came to our museum to present her inaugural ensembles to the national collection and see them placed on exhibition. The addition of these dresses to the national collection is part of an ongoing tradition—one that millions of people experience every year in our exhibition The First Ladies. The dresses are also part of the material culture that documents, and will help future generations understand, a presidential inauguration that defied some of our modern expectations.

Two cloth masks. The left mask is white with embroidered flowers; the right mask is an ocean blue color.
In 2021 Jill Biden wore masks, which matched her inaugural dresses, as part of COVID-19 precautions.

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States and Jill Biden became the nation’s first lady. Inaugurations are intended to be steady and regular occurrences in our national life. Every four years we honor the results of an election with a ceremony that makes official either the continuation of a presidential administration or the orderly transition to the new administration of the next duly elected president.

Modern inaugurations have become multiday events. Pre-inauguration festivities lead up to the formality and tradition of the swearing-in held on the West Front of the Capitol witnessed by crowds gathered on the National Mall—a solemn oath followed by uplifting remarks from the new president. The rest of the day veers between public and private events: a private luncheon where Congress entertains the new president followed by the public pageantry and exuberance of the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Usually, people line the street hoping for a glimpse of the new president and first lady walking and waving for the crowd and cameras in their first official public appearance as they make their way home to the White House. The day ends with the new president and first lady dancing together at multiple inaugural balls. The first ball in 1789 celebrated the inauguration of George Washington. They became a fixture with James Madison's inauguration, and accounts of the events frequently included a description of the first lady’s ball gown.

The 2021 inauguration was different from the inaugurations we are used to. Heightened security measures following the January 6 insurrection combined with COVID-19 precautions meant that there were fewer official guests, members of the public could not attend the inauguration in person, and there were no inaugural balls. These changes might seem unprecedented to us today, but it was not the first time that the ceremonies and festivities surrounding the inauguration have been changed. The tradition of the inaugural ball was only firmly reestablished by Harry Truman in 1949. In the decades before that, several presidents had foregone inaugural balls. Woodrow Wilson believed them inappropriate, Warren Harding hosted a private party instead, and Calvin Coolidge was in mourning for his son. Concerts replaced inaugural balls for Franklin Roosevelt’s second and third inaugurations. Wartime conservation measures combined with the president’s ill health meant that the swearing-in ceremony for FDR’s fourth inauguration was held on the South Portico of the White House. There was no parade or ball, just a buffet luncheon and small reception.

Two ensembles. The left is a lavender velvet dress, and the right is a pink rayon crepe gown.
Eleanor Roosevelt wore the lavender velvet dress on the left to FDR’s 1933 swearing-in. She wore the pink rayon crepe gown trimmed with lace and sequins shown on the right to the 1945 inaugural reception. It was designed by Arnold Constable. (PL.044202 and PL.044189)

These earlier inaugurations all changed as needed by circumstances or presidential preference. The organizers of the 2021 inauguration embraced the changes necessary to keep the participants and public safe and turned them into part of the identity of the inaugural events. Over five days, virtual events were designed to bring the inauguration festivities, and the chance to participate in them, to people across the country. The president-elect, vice president-elect, and their spouses attended a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial where lights honored the Americans who lost their lives due to COVID. A public art display of 191,500 American flags on the National Mall represented the crowds who would have attended the inauguration, but for health and security precautions. Performers from the nation’s 56 states, territories, and capital created a Virtual Parade Across America after drumlines from the University of Delaware and Howard University (the alma maters of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris) accompanied the motorcade to the White House. Masks were part of every ensemble. Instead of clips of inaugural balls, all Americans could “attend” the televised special Celebrating America,  which included dramatic readings, musical performances, remarks, and fireworks.

Jill Biden’s ensemble from the 2021 inauguration celebration, which included a white cloth mask, dress, and cashmere coat. Embroidered flowers decorate all three elements, particularly the coat’s hemline and the neckline and arms of the dress.
Jill Biden wore this ivory silk wool and organza dress and matching cashmere coat, both embroidered with the federal flowers of the states and territories, to watch the nationally televised inaugural concert and firework display. The dress, coat, and matching mask were designed by Gabriela Hearst.

For the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, there is a final inaugural tradition—the installation of the latest inaugural ball gown in the long-running First Ladies exhibition. Today, Dr. Biden’s ocean blue dress and coat designed by Alexandra O'Neill of Markarian and embroidered ivory dress and coat designed by Gabriela Hearst come to the Smithsonian. These dresses—worn to the swearing-in ceremony and the evening concert and fireworks display, respectively—join a collection that includes the dresses Eleanor Roosevelt wore to the altered 1941 and 1945 inaugural festivities. The matching masks that Dr. Biden wore with her dresses illustrate the ways that Americans sought to safeguard public health while carrying on our personal and national lives. These new and old objects, together, are material culture that documents continuity and change. While the presidential oath remains the same, the way that we mark and celebrate the inauguration can and does change, finding new ways for the public to be a part of and remember this uniquely American event.

Jill Biden’s ensemble from the 2021 inauguration's swearing-in ceremony. The ensemble’s mask, dress, and coat are ocean blue. The tweed dress’s neckline is decorated with Swarovski pearls and crystals
Dr. Biden’s ocean blue dress and coat designed by Alexandra O'Neill of Markarian is the first dress worn to an inauguration to be added to the collection since Eleanor Roosevelt donated the lavender velvet dress she wore to FDR’s 1933 swearing-in.

Lisa Kathleen Graddy is a curator in the museum's Division of Political and Military History. One of her favorite things about the first ladies exhibit is that it, like inaugurations, can be filled with continuity and change.