The First Ladies Collection
The Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection originated in 1912 when Cassie Mason Myers Julian-James, a wealthy Washingtonian who had taken a personal interest in the National Museum, proposed that the Smithsonian establish a collection of American historical costumes to illustrate changes in women’s fashion from the Colonial era to the present day. Julian-James, along with co-founder Rose Gouverneur Hoes, a descendant of President James Monroe, decided to create special cases of “costumes of the ladies of the White House and worked to interest former first ladies and their families in donating dresses. The first inaugural gown was donated in 1912 from Helen Taft, who was then first lady. The original exhibition of first ladies’ gowns opened at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building in 1914 and quickly became popular with Smithsonian visitors. It was the first Smithsonian exhibition by, for, and about women giving them a place in the nation’s museum and paving the way for future collections on women’s history. In the 1950s, curator Margaret Brown Klapthor began a new tradition of adding the gown of the current first lady to the exhibition. Until then the donation and display of a new gown was done after the first lady had left the White House.
When the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) opened in 1964, the new First Ladies' Hall featured large elegant period rooms furnished to resemble the White House in different eras. The collection remained on view almost continuously until 1987, when a renovation of the museum required the dismantling of popular First Ladies’ Hall. This allowed for major conservation treatment of the gowns and a new exhibition that incorporated more expansive interpretation. In 1992 the new exhibition, First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image, curator Edith Mayo showcased the gown collection while focusing on the different roles played by first ladies as unofficial but often prominent and influential public figures.
In 2011, the museum opened its current iteration of the exhibition. The First Ladies focuses the ways that different first ladies approached and defined the job and her impact on the presidential administration and American society. It also takes a moment to ask why we are so interested in what
the first lady wears and features clothing worn by Dolley Madison, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Edith Wilson, Grace Coolidge, and Jacqueline Kennedy as well as inaugural gowns of Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump.
For more than100 years the First Ladies Collection has been one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian. Today nearly 1,000 objects in the collection range from inaugural gowns and clothing, personal effects, furniture, and White House ephemera are used to document the activities and contributions of America’s first ladies. The conservation of the First Ladies Collection is an ongoing project at the museum. The collection resides within the museum’s Division of Political and Military History under the curatorial supervision of Lisa Kathleen Graddy.
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