Today in Smithsonian History: November 4, 1981

President Ronald Reagan addresses party-goers assembled in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History's at the Inaugural Ball in January 1981.

President Ronald Reagan addresses party-goers assembled in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History’s at the Inaugural Ball in January 1981.

November 4, 1981 Nancy Reagan officially presents the gown she wore at the presidential inaugural balls held on January 30, 1981 to the National Museum of American History’s collection of First Ladies’ gowns. On the same day, she announces a plan to establish a First Ladies’ Fellowship, an annual Smithsonian award to be offered at the Museum for the study of costume in America.

The first ladies exhibition began with a simple goal: obtaining a dress to represent the hostess of each presidential administration for a new display of historic clothing. It became an American icon and the highlight of many trips to the Smithsonian. 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.

As the popularity of the collection has grown, so has the ceremony surrounding the donation of the dresses. Early donations were informal affairs and often happened after the first lady had left the White House. Modern gown presentations are staged media events publicizing both the Smithsonian and the first lady.

First lady Helen Taft enthusiastically supported the establishment of the first ladies collection. When asked to contribute a dress to the exhibition, she chose the gown she wore to her husband’s 1909 inauguration. Her choice established a precedent for future first ladies and each one since who attended an inaugural ball has donated the gown she wore to that event.

For decades, the first ladies exhibition has been one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian Institution. It is beloved by visitors who come to admire the famous collection of gowns and to learn about the contributions made by the women who wore them. Learn more about the collection in the online exhibition.

Washington's gown

Martha Washington wore this silk taffeta gown in the early 1780s. The silk is painted with a design of flowers, butterflies, and other insects. The collar and cuffs are reproductions.

Black and white photo of Taft gown on exhibit

Gown worn by Helen Herron Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft, 1909-1913. Photographer unknown, ca. 1960s

Reagans posing in evening wear

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan in 1981. Mrs. Reagan wears the gown she donated to the Smithsonian. Courtesy of the Reagan Presidential Library.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Museum of American History

Posted: 4 November 2017
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