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Martha Washington's gownAmidst the pomp and circumstance surrounding the inaugural ceremony, many Americans eagerly await a glimpse of their first lady's ball gown.

It is a tradition that goes back to the earliest celebrations of the new republic. Martha Washington used social celebrations to further her husband's career throughout their marriage. Mary Todd Lincoln lamented that she had to wear the most expensive clothes because she was scrutinized everywhere she went.

Caroline Harrison's 1889 gownIn 1889, First Lady Caroline Harrison took advantage of her high profile moment to reinforce her husband's campaign theme. Benjamin Harrison had campaigned on the protection of home industries. According to Edith Mayo, curator emeritus of the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the gowns "caused a great deal of comment because they were the first all American-made gowns to be worn to an inauguration."

Laura Bush's wardrobe

This year, Laura Bush chose a Texas favorite to design her inaugural ball gown. Dallas designer Michael Faircloth has designed Mrs. Bush's clothes during her time as first lady of Texas.

Faircloth, who also outfits the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and Texan debutantes, created a ruby, scoop-necked gown of Chantilly lace embroidered with Austrian crystals for the Bushes' big night.

Laura BushFaircloth has also created outfits for the rest of the weekend, including a peacock-blue cowl-neck tunic and skirt with a matching wool boucle coat that Mrs. Bush will wear to the swearing-in ceremony. Other pieces designed especially for inauguration weekend include two suits, a cranberry dress, and two evening gowns -- one in an ivory champagne and the other in deep teal with a V-neck.

It is the inaugural gown, however, that will be scrutinized around the world, just as first ladies' gowns have been for hundreds of years.

Mirroring the First Lady's character

At the National Museum of American History, the First Ladies Gown Exhibit always attracts attention, just as each gown did on its debut, says Mayo.

Jacqueline Kennedy 1960 gownMany of the dresses mirror the character of the first lady who wore them. Jacqueline Kennedy's inaugural dress has always been a favorite with spectators at the Smithsonian; it was also a huge success at the time of Kennedy's inauguration.

Mrs. Kennedy had a flair for fashion that the American public adored. She designed her gown herself and took it to Bergdorf Goodman to be made. The result was a simple, sleeveless ivory sheath with a matching cape perfectly suited to Kennedy's graceful style.

"When she wore that, it was such high fashion, it was so beautiful and she looked so gorgeous in it that it just captured everybody, and there was a great deal of comment on it at the time," Mayo said.

Mamie Eisenhower 1953 gownAnother dress that wins favorable attention from the public is Mamie Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural gown. The pink silk gown is embroidered with 2,000 rhinestones, and its full skirt and gathered waist are quintessentially 1950s in their design.

Fashion blunders

On the flip side of such public admiration, Mayo says, are apparent fashion gaffes. Rosalynn Carter wore an old gown that she had worn to her husband's past two inaugurations as Georgia governor to the 1977 presidential inauguration.

"She wanted to continue the tradition and wear it when [Carter] was inaugurated president," Mayo said. "But the fashion community distinctly did not get that and they did not like it."

Hillary Clinton 1993 gownMany first ladies seem to do better the second time around. Hillary Rodham Clinton worked with New York City designer Sarah Phillips on her first gown in 1993. The result was a purple crystal-encrusted gown.

Editor's Note: This item was changed on Jan. 30, 2012.

Clinton turned to Oscar de la Renta in 1997 for her gold inaugural gown. The reviews that year were more positive; the gown was simple and elegant, and Mrs. Clinton looked more at ease than she had in '93.

Interpreting a historic role

According to Mayo, it is Martha Washington who first established the role of first lady as a social and ceremonial partner to the president. Mrs. Washington "entertained as a way to advance her husband's military and then political career."

The second first lady, however, was more of a political adviser to her husband. The political marriage between John and Abigail Adams was ridiculed because of Mrs. Adam's close involvement in her husband's presidency, but it set the stage for first ladies to come.

"We get at the beginning these two women who interpret the role quite differently," Mayo said. "So you have the social partner and the political partner and that sets very wide boundaries within which later first ladies can operate."

-- By Jessica Moore and Laura Dine, Online NewsHour

Pictures courtesy of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute.


White House

Video: Edith Mayo, curator emeritus of the First Ladies' exhibit at the National Museum of American History, discusses inaugural fashions.

Gowns as symbols of the social and political partnerships between the president and the First Lady.

The public has always enjoyed the elegance of the gowns.
Modern fashion gives way to modern roles for the First Lady.