How Inauguration Fashion Sets the Tone for a First Lady’s Term

We still don’t have a female president — which means that come Jan. 20, the most significant woman in the White House will be the first lady.
The fashion choices of the first lady — a role that, during Donald Trump’s administration, will reportedly be shared by his wife, former model Melania Trump, and daughter, outgoing VP of the Trump Organization Ivanka Trump — have the power to set the tone for her tenure in the White House. They often convey to the American public the general goals and sentiment of her husband’s administration as well.

Incoming first lady Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump attend the presidential debate in October.

And when we talk about first ladies’ inaugural fashion, this most often means talking about what she wears to the inaugural balls.

Outgoing first lady Michelle Obama waves at her husband’s first inaugural ball, in 2009. (Photo: Getty Images)

The ritual and glamour of a presidential inauguration are rife with symbolism, some heavy-handed and some subtle. What the first lady wears is a critical part of the cues that an incoming administration, and new president especially, sends the American people about what he is seeking to do for the country. Which is why, when it comes to what the first lady wears, a dress is hardly just a dress.

“The inauguration has a symbolic quality — it is the beginning of a new phase of government and thus bears the weight of expectations,” Hazel Clark, a professor of design and fashion studies and the research chair of fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York, tells Yahoo Style. “For some, hopes. And for others, fears.”

Which is why, Clark says, many first ladies — including Michelle Obama, at the start of her husband’s first term, in 2009, and Nancy Reagan, for both of her husband’s inaugurations, in 1981 and 1985, and Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 — have opted to wear white, a color that “in a Western context bears a relationship to birth, virginity, the wedding dress — significant rites of passage.”

Ronald and Nancy Reagan wave to guests at the inaugural ball in 1981. (Photo: Getty Images)

A first lady’s inaugural look also sets the tone of her own agenda, Virginia B. Johnson, a costume designer for film; small business owner in Cambridge, Mass.; and former lecturer in fashion history at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., tells Yahoo Style.

“It’s in that one look that the first lady can set the tone of her agenda,” Johnson says of the significance of a new first lady’s inauguration dress. “Does she choose to mix ready-to-wear with a high-end fashion designer — which is often a reflection of a historical-geographical moment, like Michelle Obama did when she wore Jason Wu, a Taiwanese immigrant to Canada [now living in the U.S.]? Or is it custom all the way, like the iconic Jackie Onassis, who worked with Oleg Cassini to create elegant, high-fashion looks made in the United States?”

Says Johnson on the impact of Kennedy’s Inauguration Day look: “Cassini’s design for her coat and dress emphasized her status as a fashion icon, very contemporary and young. Jackie was just 32 when JFK was inaugurated, and Cassini worked with her to make sure she didn’t look like she was ‘dressing the part’ but actually owning her role.”

And Johnson adds that outgoing first lady Michelle Obama and the iconic Jackie Kennedy share a critical quality. They understood that the first lady’s inauguration look, in terms of its critical tone-setting, can sustain four to eight years’ worth of messaging and sentiments. She says, “Both of these first ladies — in just what they chose to wear to the Inauguration ceremony — began defining in that ‘costume’ where they saw themselves in the greater conversation of the presidency. For me, Michelle Obama’s choices to wear J.Crew places her in context of being ‘one of us.’ Jackie Onassis’s choice to work with a designer to create something that was exclusively hers set the stage for ‘Camelot.’”

John and Jacqueline Kennedy on their way to the inaugural ball in 1961. (Photo: Getty Images)

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