Tsk, tsk. How could she? What was she thinking?
Tongues wagged and eyebrows arched when Rosalynn Carter appeared at Jimmy Carter s 1977 inaugural ball in the same blue silk chiffon gown that she had worn in 1971 for her husband s inauguration as governor of Georgia.
But her choice had meaning that went beyond fashion, signaling that frugality would be a hallmark of the Carter administration.
That s one of the fascinating insights offered by an exhibit that opens tomorrow at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. First-Lady Style: White House Gowns is more than a collection of pretty dresses it s an exhibit that can be appreciated as history and politics as well as fashion.
And it s a timely exhibit, coming on the heels of the intense speculation and lively buzz afterward about First Lady Michelle Obama s inauguration day choices: a yellow dress-and-coat ensemble, paired with green gloves and shoes, for the swearing-in ceremony at noon Jan. 20, and the ivory silk chiffon, one-shouldered ball gown she wore that night.
Some of these dresses are statements that the first ladies made about themselves or how they wanted to be perceived by the American public and the world, said Nan Card, who is curator of manuscripts for the Hayes Presidential Center and curator of the new exhibit.
We the people also want her to look good, in our eyes and those of the world, she pointed out. The nation wants to be proud of the First Family, Ms. Card said.
The 33 gowns in the exhibit include originals from Laura and Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Betty Ford, and, of course, Lucy Hayes. The rest are reproductions that are on loan from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Museum.
The gowns are hung on dress forms. Accompanying text provides information about each gown and the woman for whom it was created.
Lucy Hayes is the only one of the exhibit s first ladies to have two dresses on display but it s her place, after all. One is an original and the other a reproduction.
The original Hayes gown is brown and beige satin, with the bodice and bustle-style overskirt featuring a zig-zag design. Insets of dark brown satin are trimmed with dangling sequins, mother-of-pearl beads, metallic buttons, and crocheted tear drops. Satin bows highlight the cuffs, overskirt, hem, bustle, and modified circular train.
Among the reproduction gowns on display is Mrs. Carter s hard-working blue silk chiffon number and several other inaugural gowns, but many of the dresses in the exhibit were worn for other events.
Before departing the White House in January for a new home in Texas, Laura Bush sent the Hayes Center a burgundy gown with a velvet bodice and organza skirt that she wore to a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in November, 2003, and to the Kennedy Center Honors Gala in December, 2005.
Betty Ford s original dress courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is an ivory brocade with a spider mum floral pattern and long sleeves accented with fur cuffs. She wore it at a White House Christmas party on Dec. 19, 1975.
Nancy Reagan wore her Oscar de la Renta black evening gown with detachable pink organza flower to the American Film Institute Ball in May, 1998. On loan from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the gown presented the Hayes staff with a weensy problem literally.
Standard dress forms are too big for the dress, explained Nancy Kleinhenz, Hayes communications manager. Nancy Reagan was a size 2.
Mrs. Reagan s gown is also notable as another example of the connection between a first lady s style, her times, and her husband s presidency.
Nancy Reagan was glamorous, Ms. Card observed. She helped set the tone of optimism for which Ronald Reagan was known.
Likewise, Jacqueline Kennedy s elegance and sophistication captivated the public. After JFK s assassination, it was she who compared the Kennedy White House to King Arthur s Camelot, an image that has endured.
The exhibit includes a reproduction of her off-white, sleeveless silk 1961 inaugural ball gown, its bodice embroidered with silver thread. She wore it with a matching floor-length cape.
Look closely at Martha Washington s dress and you ll find a subtle message as well, according to Ms. Card. It s made of almond-pink faille accented with hand-painted, native American wildflowers, birds, and butterflies.
It was a statement of confidence in her husband and the young nation, she said, and a rejection of things English.
On display along with the life-size gowns is the Hayes collection of miniature inaugural gowns worn by every first lady through Hillary Clinton. The doll-size dresses have been exhibited off and on through the years, and have been hugely popular, Mrs. Kleinhenz said.
First-Lady Style: White House Gowns will be on display in the Hayes Museum in Fremont tomorrow through Aug. 2. The museum is on the grounds of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center at Hayes and Buckland avenues. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and federal holidays. Visitors can buy tickets for admission to either the Hayes home or museum, or a combination ticket for both. There is no additional charge for the White House gowns exhibit. Details at rbhayes.org or 419-332-2081.