Nov 21, 2011
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Washington showcases ballgowns of US first ladies

Nov 21, 2011

WASHINGTON, Nov 20, 2011 (AFP) - The slate-blue crepe dress worn in 1933 by Eleanor Roosevelt at her husband's inauguration ball and Michelle Obama's white silk chiffon gown are among treasures on display at a new first ladies' exhibit in Washington.

The National Museum of American History this weekend opened the exhibit of 26 dresses (AFP/File, Jewel Samad)

The National Museum of American History this weekend opened the exhibit of 26 dresses and over 160 artifacts including portraits and silverware that belonged to US first ladies that will refresh a longstanding section of the museum.

The highlight, however, is the inaugural ballgowns, such as a strapless lace number worn by Julia Grant (wife of Ulysses Grant) in 1869, the all burgundy velvet chosen by Caroline Harrison (wife of Benjamin Harrison) in 1889 and Nancy Reagan's white satin and lace from 1981.

"It's their debut, this is the dress of record, and the one which stays in people's memory," Lisa Kathleen Graddy, the exhibit's curator, told AFP, noting that it is a century-old custom for the dresses to enter the museum.

First ladies "on the public stage all the time and want to look appropriate because they are representing the nation," she added.

The term "first lady" is not official -- the first presidential spouse was known as "Lady Washington" and the term did not come into use until Dolly Madison, wife of James Madison, was buried in 1849.

For the inaugural ball, first ladies got a chance to make their statement through their dresses, according to Graddy.

Lady Bird Johnson wanted hers to be made out of a fabric "that could stand the test of time," and the resulting yellow satin dress and matching coat was "very beautiful, but very simple," Graddy said.

Also on display is Barbara Bush's blue velvet and satin dress from the inauguration ball in 1989 and the violet lace chosen by Hillary Clinton four years later.

But the display includes other dresses, such as the pale yellow silk evening gown that Jackie Kennedy wore in 1961 to the first state dinner hosted by JFK.

The exhibit contains 26 dresses and over 160 artifacts including portraits and silverware that belonged to first ladies (AFP/File, Jewel Samad)

The ball gowns were also used to serve the nation. Lou Hoover (Herbert Hoover's wife), renowned for her elegance, was the first president's wife to be pictured in Vogue, and in 1929 she wore a cotton evening dress to promote the US textiles industry.

But not every first lady was as patriotic when it came to fashion.

Frances Cleveland (wife of Grover Cleveland) in 1895 bought a Jacques Doucet dress in Paris, while Edith Wilson (Woodrow Wilson's spouse) in the 1920s favored black robes from Worth, another French fashion house.

"It's a changing thing. Each first lady recreates the job to suit the president, to suit the needs of the country," said Graddy.

"But there is also a constant," she added. "The first lady is a hostess and a representative of the nation at home and abroad, of her husband's administration."

The Jimmy Choo shoes worn by Michelle Obama at the event are on display in the new first ladies' exhibit as well as her jewelry and gown.

The ensemble worn by the current first lady included earrings with a center cluster of briolettes, set in white gold, with a total carat weight of 61.by Fabienne Faur

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