The First Ladies at the National Museum of American History

Probably the first fashion exhibition I ever saw was the old First Ladies Hall in the National Museum of American History.   It was 1973, I was eighteen and I’ve been in love with historical fashion ever since.  Several years ago I was pretty dismayed to learn that the old hall was being updated, and that there would no longer be a dress from every First Lady on display.  But considering that some of the dresses had been on view since 1914, I’m sure it was past time for some of them to be taken down for conservation’s sake.

It is part of a general update the entire museum is undergoing.  Built in 1964, the National Museum of American History is part of the Smithsonian.  When I last visited the museum in the mid 1990s, I couldn’t tell that much had changed in the museum from my previous visits, with the exception of a few new artifacts like Archie Bunker’s chair and Mr. Rogers’s sweater.  But now all the exhibits are being revamped to make it more interactive and visitor friendly.  For the most part, it is a huge improvement.

The First Ladies exhibition is now more compact, but it is a huge draw within the museum.  I had to stand in line with lots of schoolgirls who were just as enthralled as I had been on my first visit years ago.  And that’s pretty amazing considering that elsewhere in the Smithsonian, it was evidently Teenagers Runamuck Day.

My photos are quite poor, due to the glass cases and the very dim lighting, but the exhibition itself is quite beautiful, even with the hoards of people and the noise.  It is still worth taking the time to see, though it does not, of course, have anywhere near the impact of all those lovely ladies lined up from Martha Washington to Hillary Clinton.

The top photo shows a dress from Mamie Eisenhower.  The dress looks red, but is actually a nice dark pink.  It was made by designer Nettie Rosenstein, and the matching handbag is beaded.

These two dresses belonged to Grace Coolidge, who gave them to her maid, Maggie Rogers.

This gown was worn by Caroline Scott Harrison circa 1890.  It was later altered.

The Chanel-style suit is actually one of Nancy Reagan’s many Adolfos.  The dress behind Mrs. Harrison’s was Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural ball, and was designed by Sally Milgrim.

Both of these dresses were worn by Lou Hoover, who was considered to be a very fashionable woman.  The evening dress is silk with metallic threads interwoven.  Mrs. Hoover was the first First Lady to appear in Vogue.

This gown was Jackie Kennedy’s, of course.  It was designed by Oleg Cassini for a state dinner in 1961.  According to his autobiography, he made this dress with one shoulder as a stepping-stone to making a strapless dress for her.  And that he did very soon.

The dress is the background was not for a midget; this was an unfortunate trick of perspective.  The dress belonged to Julia Dent Grant.

I’m sure you all recognize this dress as the one worn by Michelle Obama for the first inauguration in 2009.  Designed by Jason Wu, I can tell you that even though I’d seen this dress in dozens of photos and in video, its beauty was simply astounding.  Maybe it was because all the news photos were so brightly lit, but I’d never noticed how the dress sparkles, with little bits of gold embroidered throughout.

Note the crowds of viewers.

Dolly Madison was well-represented, as she should be.

This dress, with both a daytime and an even bodice, was worn by Mary Todd Lincoln.  It is thought to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley.

Note Patricia Nixon’s name imprinted inside her Herbert Levine shoes.

This is another dress belonging to Grace Coolidge.

And I do have to show a garment from at least one president, so here are Warren G. Harding’s silk pajamas and his slippers.

I have more photos from the NMAH that I’ll be showing next week.  To see good pictures of the dresses, plus some more, you should visit the museum’s Pinterest page that is devoted to the First Ladies collection.


I meant to talk about the big difference in experience of this museum and that of the DAR.  It is amazing how much a little quiet and solitude can mean when one is trying to absorb information.  After returning home I realized just how little I had retained from the First Ladies exhibit, so I turned to the internet to refresh my memory.  The notes on the museum website are the same as that on the museum text panels, and I was surprised to see just how much I missed in the details of these items.

For anyone planning a trip to Washington, DC, I suggest that you put this very popular exhibit at the top of your schedule.  Be there then the museum opens and go straight to it before the crowd starts to gather.


Filed under Museums

10 responses to “The First Ladies at the National Museum of American History

  1. Love the rusty red tiered flapper looking dress (Mrs Coolidge)… very pretty.

    Thanks for sharing these fashions, Lizzie…I have never been to the museum.


  2. Teresa

    What a gorgeous collection! Thanks so much for sharing this Lizzie.


  3. When we visit Presidential Libraries, I always enjoy seeing the First Ladies dresses on display. Thank you for sharing these pictures with us,.


  4. I’m really impressed with your ability to get such great photos, even with the glass cases/light and teens running amok! It looks like a wonderful exhibit.


    • Where there’s a will… I actually took lots more photos and discarded more than I used.

      I had completely forgotten that May is field trip time in the schools. You can tell I’ve been out of the classroom for a while.


  5. Pingback: Front Row: Chinese American Designers at the Museum of Chinese in America | The Vintage Traveler

  6. Pingback: Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions | The Vintage Traveler

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