As a Baltimore native, I’m no stranger to the Smithsonian museums. Many elementary school field trips were spent visiting the National Mall and the surrounding area. I vividly remember my first trip when I was in the third grade. My class boarded the big yellow school buses and made our way down to D.C. where we were allowed to choose any museum to visit on the Mall. I can recall being rather confused when I saw that the Mall was a big grassy area and not an upscale shopping center. Nevertheless, I quickly adjusted and made my way to the National Museum of American History with the rest of my group.
Back then, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag still hung in the entranceway, and the museum looked much different than it does now. I remember being excited to see Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, but my favorite part was definitely seeing the First Ladies’ gowns. It still is. Though the National Museum of American History has changed several times during its 50 year history, the First Ladies’ gowns have remained an important and beloved attraction.
The exhibit even predates the American History Museum. In 1912, Cassie Mason Myers, Julian James, and Rose Gouverneur Hoes, descendents of James Monroe, offered to establish an exhibition of historical clothing for the Smithsonian Institution. Helen Taft enthusiastically supported the idea and donated her 1909 inaugural gown, thus launching a precedent that First Ladies have followed ever since. Prior to the establishment of the National Museum of American History, the gowns were displayed in the Arts and Industries Building.
While the early versions of the exhibit focused primarily on fashion, the current display highlights the First Ladies’ contributions to the presidency and to American society. The Smithsonian Associates is hosting a lecture that explores these contributions, as well. Attendees can join Lisa Kathleen Graddy , the museum’s deputy chair and curator of the division of political history, as she shares insights into the exhibition during her seminar The First Ladies Exhibition: Changing Fashions, Changing Role on March 12. Michelle Obama’s 2008 inaugural gown will be on display at the event and available for a memorable photo op.
In preparation for the event, I decided to pay a visit to my favorite exhibit. I’ve often just paid attention to the gorgeous gowns on display, but today I took the time to read some of the informational plaques. As a result, I learned a lot about the role of the First Lady and how it has evolved. For example, White House hostesses have been referred to as everything from “Lady Presidentress” to “Republican Queen.” It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that citizens began to refer to the role as the First Lady.
I make the distinction of using the term White House hostesses above because, as it turns out, not all First Ladies were the wives of the President. I had just assumed that everyone aside from bachelor President James Buchanan had their wife featured in the role. Such is not the case. While the role is usually taken on by the President’s wife, if the President was a bachelor or widower or if his wife was unable to serve, he chose a family member or close friend to act as hostess.
All 46 First Ladies line the wall of the exhibit with pictures noting their time in the position and relation to the President. I was surprised to learn how young some of the First Ladies were. All three of the youngest women to serve in the position were 21. I’m 21. While I don’t mind having people over to my apartment from time to time, I certainly can’t imagine playing hostess for important diplomats and representing the women of the nation. The youngest were as follows: Emily Donelson, niece of Andrew Jackson (served 1829-1831); Angelica Singleton Van Buren, daughter-in-law of Martin Van Buren (served 1839-1841); and Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of Grover Cleveland (served 1886-1889 & 1893-1897). On the other end of the spectrum, the oldest First Lady was Barbara Bush, wife of George H. W. Bush who began her time as First Lady at age 63.
You can learn more about the women at Wednesday’s event, so let’s get back to the gowns. The Smithsonian asks each First Lady to donate something to represent herself in the collection. It has become tradition for that to be an inaugural ball gown, but other gowns are featured. The current display features over two dozen gowns, but the Smithsonian has much more in its collection. The oldest gown belonged to Martha Washington. Unfortunately, many of these older dresses have become damaged as a result of light, climate, and gravity during their time on display and can no longer be exhibited. In order to preserve the gowns still in good condition, the dresses are rotated on and off display. I think that just gives me another excuse to return!
Tickets to The First Ladies Exhibition: Changing Fashions, Changing Roles are $30 for members and $42 for general admission. The event will be held on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 from 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m in the Warner Bros. Theater of the National Museum of American History. Tickets are available here.
Written by Courtney Guth, social media intern at The Smithsonian Associates.