Visual Description | The First Ladies

Exhibit Overview

The First Ladies exhibition is 2,980 square feet. The entry to the First Ladies exhibition is marked by five-foot tall panels with full-length portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama, Lou Hoover, Nancy Reagan, Francis Cleveland, and Betty Ford. The entrance to the exhibition is located to the right of the entrance to the American Presidency: A Glorious Burden exhibition.  

As you enter the First Ladies exhibition, there is a long case in front of you, which runs the length of the entire wall. It holds 12 gowns from different first ladies through time and is not in chronological order. On your right there is a History Channel video about the first ladies, set into a nook. To your left is a long case containing official White House china used by first ladies to entertain, and a timeline of first ladies. In the center of the main exhibition space is a stand-alone case, holding a gown from the current first lady. Beyond that, there are two more cases with gowns from recent first ladies. Off of this space, to the visitor’s right, the final section of the First Ladies exhibition presents case studies about four first ladies—Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt, and Lady Bird Johnson.


Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy 


Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, 1961–1963
Jacqueline Kennedy’s State Dinner Dress
Yellow silk evening gown with an overlay of crepe chiffon designed by Oleg Cassini. Mrs. Kennedy wore the dress in 1961 for the administration’s first state dinner, for Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba.
Topping the best-dressed lists, Jacqueline Kennedy was a fashion icon. The “Jackie look,” copies of the clothes designed for her by Oleg Cassini, sold in stores across America on mannequins that resembled her. An association with the glamorous first lady was enough to sell everything from hats to costume jewelry.

Verbal Description

As you enter The First Ladies exhibition, there is a long case in front of you that runs the length of the entire wall. It holds thirteen dresses, displayed on buff-colored mannequins with no heads or hands, and some jewelry, shoes, and handbags. The backdrop and floor of the case are a neutral, matte, light gray color, with damask wallpaper panels—each about the size of a single window—at evenly spaced intervals along the back of the case. These damask panels are shinier than the matte wall and floor in the case but are the same color. The front of the case is made entirely of glass. The dresses are not presented in chronological order; there are older styles mixed with more modern styles, up to the middle of the 20th century. 

Slightly to the right of center, and in the foreground of this case of gowns, is a mannequin displaying a gown identified as "Jacqueline Kennedy's State Dinner Dress." It stands next to a purple floral flapper-style gown worn by First Lady Lou Hoover to the right, and in front of a green, floor-length gown with a cream floral overskirt and bodice worn by First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland. Jacqueline Kennedy’s gown has a simple, one-shoulder column dress design, and is a full-length gown that would have fallen to about an inch above the floor. The dress has very clean lines, and is made of yellow silk, with an overlay of crepe chiffon. It has a yellow silk tie at the waist and a chiffon cape of the same color trailing from the single shoulder of the gown; this would have been on Mrs. Kennedy's left side. The gown has a border around the hem, and small embroidered embellishments with seed pearls at regular intervals on the bodice.

Just to the right of Mrs. Kennedy's gown is a pedestal side table which holds a necklace bust. The table is the same matte gray color as the backdrop and floor of the case, and the bust is a slightly darker grey. On the bust is a three-strand pearl necklace, identified in the label as Mrs. Kennedy's costume pearl necklace.


Melania Trump 


Melania Trump’s Inaugural Gown, 2017
Vanilla silk crepe off-the-shoulder gown with a slit skirt, ruffled accent trim from neckline to hem, and a claret ribbon around the waist designed by Hervé Pierre in collaboration with Melania Trump.

Verbal Description

As you move into the center of The First Ladies exhibition, there is a single stand-alone case in the middle of the walkway. When you first approach this case from the entrance, the dress inside is facing you. The china and the timeline of the first ladies is behind you and to the left; the first long case of 12 dresses from different time periods is to your right; the cases with the gowns of the more recent first ladies are in front of you.

This single case in the center of the exhibition always holds a dress from the current first lady. Right now, it holds the inaugural gown of Melania Trump, who has been the first lady since January 2017. To the right of the case, on the wall of the exhibition, is a full-length photo of Mrs. Trump and her husband before his inaugural ball. He is on the left and wears a formal tuxedo. She is on the right and wears the dress that is on display in the case. The dress is displayed on a buff-colored mannequin with no head or arms, which stands in the very center of the case. The floor of the case is a royal blue color, with a gold and ivory border along the edges and an ivory ring in the center, inside which the hem of the full-length dress pools lightly around the base of the mannequin. The floor inside the ring is solid blue and the rest of the floor is covered in a pattern of eight-sided gold stars.

The dress is a vanilla-colored silk crepe. It is an off-the-shoulder style gown and has a slit in the left side of the skirt, that extends up to thigh level. There is a waterfall ruffle across the front of the gown, flowing diagonally from the right shoulder to the left-hand side of the waist, and then back to the right side of the skirt. Where the waterfall ruffle hits the waist, there is also a thin, claret-colored ribbon belt, which ties in a bow right next to where the ruffle switches direction at the waist. 


Mary Todd Lincoln 


Purple Velvet Ensemble
Believed to have been made by African American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly and worn by the first lady during the winter social season of 1861–62. All three pieces are piped with white satin. The daytime bodice is trimmed with mother-of-pearl buttons. Its lace collar is of the period but is not original to the bodice. The evening bodice is trimmed with lace and chenille fringed braid.

Verbal Description

This display is in one of the four case studies located in the back, right hand section of the exhibition. A large case, inset into the wall of the exhibition, highlights objects and stories from 1861 to 1865, when Mary Todd Lincoln was first lady. It contains one of Mrs. Lincoln’s gowns, along with a second bodice and a silver coffee and tea service. 

The backdrop of the case is an enlarged black and white photograph of the East Room of the White House in 1861, after Mrs. Lincoln completed its redecoration. 

The side walls and floor of the case are a neutral grey color. The gown is displayed to the viewer's left-hand side of the case on a buff-colored mannequin with no head or hands. It is a floor-length gown, in a rich purple velvet, piped in white satin along the seams. The gown is believed to have been made by African American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly and was worn by the First Lady during the winter social season of 1861-1862. Along with the skirt, the mannequin is wearing the daytime bodice for the gown, which has long, slightly bell-shaped sleeves and is trimmed with small, square, mother-of-pearl buttons. It has a lace collar, which is from the correct time period, but is not original to the dress. A second bodice is displayed on the viewer's right-hand side of the case, behind a silver coffee and tea service. This is an evening bodice in an off-the-shoulder style, with shorter sleeves that appear to wrap around the arm, overlapping on the top of the bicep. Though faded, it is made of the same purple velvet and white satin piping as the daytime bodice and skirt. It is trimmed with lace and chenille fringed braid around the arm holes.