Collection of Period Costumes

1914 – Before 1955

First ladies’ gowns displayed in the Collection of Period Costumes exhibition, about 1930

Arts and Industries Building
900 Jefferson Drive, SW
Washington, DC

The Collection of Period Costumes exhibition opened in 1914 in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. The original Collection of Period Costumes exhibition included dresses worn by the wives of the presidents and the female relatives who sometimes served as the White House hostesses. It was the first Smithsonian collection focused on women and the first exhibition to feature them prominently. It paved the way for future collections and exhibitions about American women.

The cases featuring the first ladies’ gowns quickly became one of the museum’s most popular attractions. Labels included brief identifications but no biographical information about the women or detailed descriptions of their dresses. By 1931, there were costumes representing a presidential wife or hostess for each past administration.