Smithsonian Adds First Lady Jill Biden’s Inaugural Ensembles to Its Historic First Ladies Collection

Addition to First Ladies Collection Continues a 100-Year Tradition
January 25, 2023
News Release

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A white dress, white overcoat and blue coat ensemble with matching accessories

Photo by Jaclyn Nash

First Lady of the United States Jill Biden formally presented the dress and coat ensembles she wore to both the 2021 presidential inauguration day and evening celebrations to the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection during a Jan. 25 ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Dr. Biden’s presentation of both sets of inaugural attire is a historic first for the exhibit. The two ensembles were immediately placed on display at the center of the museum’s popular “The First Ladies” exhibition.

Dr. Biden’s daytime inaugural ensemble was an ocean blue wool tapered tweed dress, hand embellished with pearls and crystals in a delicate floral pattern, with its matching overcoat accented by a dark blue velvet collar and cuffs, designed by Alexandra O’Neill, Founder and Designer of Markarian. 

Dr. Biden also presented her evening inaugural attire, designed by Gabriela Hearst, Founder and Creative Director of Gabriela Hearst, which included an ivory silk wool cady dress and an ivory double-breasted cashmere coat, with embroidery reflecting the federal flowers from every state and territory of the U.S. as a symbol of unity. Also, marking the historic nature of the inauguration, conducted in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Biden’s matching face mask for each ensemble will be on display for the collection. 

The COVID-19 pandemic precautions precluded an official inaugural ball for the first couple who instead celebrated with a nationally televised inaugural concert and firework display. Dr. Biden joined the ranks of other First Ladies who also had inaugurations that did not feature balls due to war, the Depression or other reasons, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Wilson, Florence Harding, Lou Hoover, Grace Coolidge and Betty Ford.

Both ensembles are gifts of the individual designers to the National Museum of American History. 

For more than a hundred years, the First Ladies Collection has been one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian. The collection originated in 1912, and the inaugural “First Ladies” exhibition mounted in 1914 was the first display at the Smithsonian to prominently feature women. The exhibition itself has changed in size, location, style and narrative several times over many decades.

“Today Dr. Biden continues a more than a century-long tradition that is beloved by the American people, but it is also an important symbol of the continuing endurance of American democracy,” said Anthea Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “Each ensemble in one of the most visible collections at the museum tells a story about the spouse who wore it and their hopes for the nation.”

“The First Ladies” exhibition features 27 dresses and more than 160 other objects, ranging from those of Martha Washington to Dr. Biden, and includes White House state china settings, personal possessions and artifacts from the Smithsonian’s unique collection of first ladies’ materials. Among the dresses displayed in the exhibition are Grace Coolidge’s flapper-style evening gown, Jacqueline Kennedy’s yellow-silk gown worn to the Kennedy administration’s first state dinner in 1961 and Eleanor Roosevelt’s slate blue crepe gown, which she wore to the 1933 inaugural ball. First ladies are unofficial but critical members of presidential administrations. For more than 200 years, the public has admired their individual approach to the role in the White House.

The exhibition examines this in four main sections: “The Fashionable First Lady” explores the public’s interest in the first ladies’ fashions. Only a few first ladies have become fashion icons, inspiring trends and promoting American designers, but all have had their wardrobes scrutinized by the American public, continuing the debate over what is “appropriate” for presidential style.

“The Nation’s Hostess” looks at the role that the First Lady has played for the nation and the presidential administrations. Each reception or dinner is an opportunity for the First Lady to help build America’s international relationships, win political friends and public support for the President or further his administration’s agenda. Each First Lady puts her own stamp on presidential hospitality.

“Inauguration and Opportunities” looks at the inauguration of a President as a time of optimism and new beginnings. In addition to attending ceremonies and balls, incoming first ladies often announce the agendas and special projects they intend to pursue. 

“Changing Times, Changing First Ladies” highlights Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson, who all fashioned their own ways of handling the White House, families, parties and their own political influence and activities. Through different times and circumstances, they crafted significant roles for themselves that they believed would allow them to best serve the country.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open daily except Dec. 25, between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, PK–12 educational materials and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

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SI-23-2023

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Valeska Hilbig

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National Museum of American History
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