Of all the many unprecedented aspects of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, perhaps the most disappointing to fashion fans is the lack of fancy inaugural balls – and thus the lack of fancy inaugural gowns.
Official, in-person, usually insanely crowded inaugural balls have been dropped from the schedule of inaugural festivities thanks largely to the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, plus security concerns arising from the attack on the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.
But a check back through history shows that inaugural balls on the evening of Inauguration Day, and the fashion displayed at them, have been familiar and beloved customs dating back to the administration of George Washington..
It raises the questions: What about the Smithsonian’s hugely popular First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History? What outfit will Jill Biden donate to the collection some months hence (assuming the coronavirus pandemic has abated and the museum has reopened)? This is a first-lady tradition that dates back more than 100 years – is it over?
All is not lost. Even if she didn’t wear a formal gown for the inauguration celebrations, Biden could donate her Markarian swearing-in outfit to the collection – she wouldn’t be the first – or even a dress she wears at some other formal event, such as a state dinner, once those resume.
Biden wore a matching coat and dress set in an ocean blue wool tweed with a matching silk face mask, all by New York designer Alexandra O’Neill of Markarian.
The coat was edged with a darker blue velvet collar and cuffs; the tapered dress had a chiffon bodice and scalloped skirt, plus a neckline hand-embellished with Swarovski pearls and crystals in a floral pattern.
O’Neill told USA TODAY her team collaborated directly with Biden’s team, drawing inspiration from Biden’s classically feminine style and building on it to create something special to signify the importance of the day.
“It would be an honor to have a piece of mine in the Smithsonian,” said O’Neill in an email to USA TODAY. “It would be incredibly humbling to be included in such a historical and prestigious exhibit surrounded by other amazing designers.”
Later, the Bidens and their family were shown in the White House bopping to Demi Lovato during a virtual concert and watching from the Blue Room Balcony as Katy Perry sang and fireworks exploded over the National Mall.
For the evening celebration, Jill Biden changed into a creamy white coat-and-dress ensemble by established designer Gabriela Hearst. The silk wool knee-length frock featured an organza neckline and sleeves embroidered with flowers from every state and territory, according to a statement from the label.
The matching cashmere coat featured more floral embellishment at the hem, with a quote from Benjamin Franklin embroidered on the inside lining, in tribute to Biden’s long career as a college professor which she intends to continue as first lady. “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Biden completed the outfit with elbow-length matching gloves and mask.
“What normally happened (in the past) is that the first lady selected a piece, at her discretion, to go into the collection,” says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, the museum’s first-ladies curator and a specialist in political history.
Formal ball gowns are the most famous items in the collection, but it also includes Eleanor Roosevelt’s inaugural suit from 1933 and a gown she wore to an inaugural concert, Graddy says. Betty Ford, who became first lady after President Nixon resigned in 1974, donated a favorite dress she wore to a state dinner.
“Since Helen Taft donated her inaugural gown (in 1912), that’s come to be a bit of a tradition,” Graddy says. “We will work with Dr. Biden to see what she would like to represent her in the museum.”
The First Ladies Collection dates to 1912, when the first inaugural gown, from President William Howard Taft’s wife, first lady Helen Taft, was donated. It began as a collection to show the evolution of women’s clothing but evolved to a scholarly look at the role and how it has been shaped by the women who filled the role.
“Each first lady creates the job in some ways anew, based on her own interests and the needs of the administration, her own needs, and the expectations of the American public,” Graddy says. “It’s a job that keeps shifting and changing depending on the first ladies.”
The original exhibition of first ladies’ gowns opened at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building in 1914 and the gowns remained on display in museum cases until the 1950s.
Since then it has been been reimagined and expanded, and moved into new buildings or new quarters multiple times. For decades, the First Ladies Collection has been one of the most popular exhibits in the sprawling complex of Smithsonian museums.
This is not Biden’s first inauguration rodeo – she wore formal gowns to two sets of inaugural balls as second lady in the Obama administration.
Staging any presidential inauguration is complicated; staging it under the current pandemic conditions is even more so, but it’s doable, underscoring Americans’ ability to adapt prized traditions to new realities.
Compared to the lethality of the COVID-19 pandemic (more than 3,000 people dying every day), the lack of inaugural balls and attire may seem unbearably trivial. But Americans are fond of their presidential customs, and such rituals may have some healing power.
As Graddy points out, the First Ladies Collection is about more than just frocks. It focuses on how 53 women (so far, they’ve all been women, including daughters, sisters, nieces, daughters-in-law or family friends in addition to wives) approached this undefined, unpaid, high-pressure job.
“People are interested in the gowns, in the china and the other objects, and we use them as a way to talk about some of these issues,” Graddy says “Why are people interested in dresses? Why do they care about what first ladies wear? They always have – Martha Washington complained about the scrutiny.”
“If the first lady represents us in the nation and abroad, people feel they have a right to have an opinion about what she’s doing, including what she’s wearing,” says Graddy, alluding to conversations over whether former first lady Michelle Obama, for example, should have worn shorts on vacation in the Grand Canyon or an informal cardigan to meet Queen Elizabeth II.
It should be noted that inaugural balls have been canceled before, for different reasons. According to historians, President Franklin Pierce canceled the parties in 1853 because he was still in mourning over the death of his last surviving son, who was killed at age 11 in a train accident a few months before Pierce was sworn in. President Woodrow Wilson decided in 1913 that inaugural balls were inappropriate and too expensive. And President Warren G. Harding wanted a simple, low-key inauguration in 1921.
For decades, private “charity balls” replaced official balls, including during the four inaugurations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II. Official inaugural balls resumed only in 1949 at the second inauguration of President Harry S. Truman.