First Ladies Inauguration Ball Gowns

One of the most popular exhibits in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History located in Washington D.C. is the First Ladies Inauguration Ball Gown exhibit.  (Now my husband would argue this point by saying that any of the exhibits at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum are much more exciting!)  In this post I will discuss several of the First Ladies Inauguration Ball Gowns concentrating on the last 60 years with twelve First Ladies and starting in 1961 with Mrs. Jaqueline Kennedy to the most recent in 2021 with Mrs. Jill Biden.  Fashion Note: Any of these First Ladies Inauguration Ball gowns would be a great inspiration for a mother of the bride/groom dress for a formal evening wedding. 

But first, here is some information of how and when the collection of the First Ladies Inauguration Ball Gowns was started.  The collection started in 1912 when the Smithsonian began to accumulate dresses donated from past the First Ladies.   As the collection grew throughout the years, it has been determined that every administration since President Washington is represented, although some of the dresses were not specifically worn for an Inauguration.

Today it has become customary for a former First Lady to donate her Inauguration Ball Gown, occasionally with accessories such as shoes or a purse, to the Smithsonian after the end of a President’s term in office.   In case you were wondering, if a President serves multiple terms, the First Lady will customarily donate the Inauguration Ball gown from the first term and a dress worn for a subsequent term usually goes to her husband’s Presidential library.   

The young and fashionable Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of President John Kennedy (1961 to 1963, wore a custom designed gown by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf for her husband’s 1961 Inauguration Ball.  The strapless gown was made of peau d’ange fabric embellished with crystals and embroidered with silver thread with a bodice overlay made of silk chiffon.

1961 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Jacqueline Kennedy

For the 1965 Inauguration Ball of President Lyndon Johnson (1963 to 1969) his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, wore a simple yellow silk satin gown designed by John Moore.  The dress had cap sleeve and the matching long coat had sable trimmed sleeves.

1965 Inauguration Ball gown and matching coat worn by Lady Bird Johnson

Pat Nixon, wife of President Richard Nixon (1969 to 1974), wore a gown designed by Karen Berin for her husband’s 1969 Inauguration Ball. The gown was made of yellow mimosa silk satin with gold and silver embroidery and embellished with Austrian crystal.

1969 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Pat Nixon

The next gown in the First Ladies collection was worn for a White House State Dinner by Betty Ford, her husband was President Gerald Ford (1974-1977).  Ford became President after the resignation of Nixon and served out the term but did not win the election in 1976. Special Note: This is an example of a First Ladies dress that was not worn for an Inauguration Ball.  

The pale green sequined chiffon gown embroidered in a chrysanthemum pattern was designed by Frankie Welch.  Mrs. Ford wore the dress twice for a State Dinner, once in 1975 State Dinner for the Shah of Iran and again in 1976 for the State Dinner for King Juan Carlos of Spain.     

1969 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Pat Nixon

For the 1977 Inauguration Ball for President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) his wife, Rosalynn Carter, wore a gown designed by Mary Matise which she had previously worn for the 1971 Gubernatorial Ball when her husband was elected as the Governor of Georgia.  The blue chiffon gown was trimmed with gold embroidery and worn with a matching sleeveless coat.   

1977 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Rosalynn Carter

Four years later, for the1981 Inauguration Ball of President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) his wife Nancy Reagan wore a gown designed by James Galanos.  The glamourous First Lady wore a white one shouldered gown of silk satin heavily beaded gown.  Mrs. Reagan had worked with Galanos previously and had worn a different one shouldered gown for the Gubernatorial Ball in 1967 when husband was elected Governor of California.  Fashion Note: I believe this would be the first time that a First Lady had worn a one shouldered gown for an Inaugural Ball.         

1981 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Nancy Reagan

For the 1989 Inauguration Ball of President George H.W. Bush (1989 to 1993) his wife, Barbara Bush, wore a gown designed by Arnold Scaasi.  The long sleeve gown was made of royal blue velvet and silk satin and featured an asymmetrical skirt; of course she wore the gown with her iconic pearl necklace.   

1989 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Barbara Bush

For the 1993 Inauguration Ball of President Bill Clinton (1993 to 2001) his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wore a gown designed by Sarah Phillips and made by Barbara Matera Ltd. who was a New York theatrical costume maker.  The gown was made of a lovely violet beaded lace gown with an iridescent blue velvet silk mousseline overskirt. 

1993 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Eight years later, for the 2001 Inauguration Ball of President George W. Bush (2001-2009) his wife Laura Bush wore a gown designed by Michael Faircloth.  The gown was made in a red crystal embroidered Chantilly lace over silk georgette. 

2001 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Laura Bush

For the 2009 Inauguration Ball of President Barack Obama (2009 to 2017) his wife, Michelle Obama, wore a gown designed by Jason Wu.  The elegant one shouldered white silk chiffon gown is embellished with organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers.   

2009 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Michelle Obama

For the 2017 Inauguration Ball of President Donald Trump (2017 to 2021) his wife, Melania Trump, wore a gown designed by Herve Pierre. The off the shoulder ivory   crepe gown features a slit skirt, a ruffled trim from the neckline to the hem and a thin red ribbon at the waist. 

2017 Inauguration Ball gown worn by Melania Trump

The next dress may look like an unusual choice, but due to Covid-19 restrictions the Inauguration of President Joe Biden (2021 to present) was very different than any previous administrations.  The swearing-in ceremony had limited capacity and there was no Inauguration Ball but a virtual concert was broadcast in the evening. 

For these reasons First Lady Jill Biden did not wear a formal gown but instead worn a coat and dress ensemble by designer Gabriela Hearst. The knee length dress was made of silk wool with an organza neckline and sleeves which featured floral embroidery that incorporated the flowers from every state and territory of the United States (what a great idea!)  Mrs Biden thoughtfully had the state flower of Delaware embroidered on the bodice positioned on the left side over her heart. 

The matching coat was made of a white cashmere that also had floral embroidery at the hem.  In another sentimental gesture inside the coat Mrs. Biden has a Benjamin Franklin quote embroidered into the lining to honor her career as a college professor which says, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”.

2021 dress and matching coat worn by Jill Biden
on the evening of her husband’s Inauguration

So, as previously mentioned, any of the gowns worn by the First Ladies shown above would be a wonderful inspiration for a dress for a mother of the bride/groom.