At look back at First Ladies Inaugural Gowns

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Eleanor Roosevelt’s inaugural dress, 1933 from the Smithsonian

Eleanor Roosevelt’s inaugural dress, 1933 from the Smithsonian

Taking a look back at other Inaugural gowns, you can see how they really do set the tone of the times. It’s interesting to look back in the Smithsonian Archives to see First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s Inaugural gown. Her dress is a rather austere lavender (called Eleanor Blue) buttoned up for the times, long ball gown. Although she was First Lady for three terms, Mrs. Roosevelt only had one Inaugural Ball Gown because FDR canceled the full-on Inaugural balls for his other two terms. Interesting idea, huh?  Despite being from a wealthy family, Mrs. Roosevelt had the fashion sense of  a recessionista.

 Compare Mrs. Roosevelt’s gown to Flo Harding’s early 1920′s “let the good times roll ” gown. This dress has hundreds of tiny beds in elegant patterns sewn into it. I saw it years ago on display at the Smithsonian museum in DC. Truly beautiful. The 20’s was about having fun and escaping from the gloom and deprivation of World War I.   Enter the Flapper with her beaded dresses heralding an era of good times.   Mrs. Harding dress was the precursor of the full born flappers celebration of fun, beads and bright colors.

flo+harding+gown Recessionista in The White House: Michelle Obama Goes to Town

Forence Kling Harding’s Inaugural gown and wrap, early 1920s (from the Smithsonian)

I couldn’t find a picture of the what the the elegant Grace Coolidge wore to her pre-Depression ball. But from a note about the Smithsonian exhibit on it’s noted that she wore ” a flapper-like red velvet number.” Below is another dress she wore during the Coolidge administration, rocking flapper elegance with a big, loud shout-out of red chiffon. Its interesting that Mrs. Coolidge had such stylish clothes, when her husband was sometimes called “frugal Cal” and publicly chided for his perceived stinginess by the press. His wife’s clothing allowance may have been his one indulgence.  My great grandmother grew up near a small Massachusetts town (Northhampton) where Grace Coolidge lived before she became First Lady.  I always remember her remarking on how elegant Grace was and how her clothing was in direct contrast to her husband Cal’s austerity.

coolidge+dress Recessionista in The White House: Michelle Obama Goes to Town

Pictured: A Grace Coolidge Dress from the 1920s  ( Picture courtesy of the Univ of Texas at Austin.)

Having taken a look back at the past, I look forward to Michelle Obama’s fashion journey as First Lady. She’s bringing frugal back with a whole new look. I can’t wait to see her 2013 Inaugural choice. As you can see from the above photos, the First Lady’s Inaugural Ball gown does paint a picture of the times and the economy.  The style of an inauguration gown is something of an economic predictor. It will be interesting to see what Michelle Obama chooses in 2013.  To learn more about the First Ladies’ Inauguration gowns, check out the blog on the Smithsonian’s website with its discussion of the First Ladies Gowns.


Since 2008, Mary Hall has been the author of The Recessionista Blog, which is read by thousands of regular readers in over 160 countries. An internationally recognized expert on the art of the living the good life for less, she has been a commentator on local, national, and international radio and TV shows. Her advice has been featured in over 2,000 media outlets, including The New York Times, Reuters, Life & Style magazine, ABC News, NBC News and now The Huffington Post, among many others.