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Friday, March 11, 2011

Thank You Mrs. Taft

First Ladies Exhibit, 1920s
The First Ladies Exhibit in the
Arts & Industries Building, 1920s.
When First Lady Michelle Obama donated her dress to the Smithsonian Institution’s First Ladies Collection on March 9, 2010 she followed a tradition starting almost a century before. Today, March 11, 2011, marks the 99th anniversary of the beginning of this popular custom. On March 11, 1912 Helen Herron Taft donated her white satin, silver embroidered gown that she wore to her husband’s inaugural and initiated a tradition continued by her successors. 
Helen Herron Taft's Gown
Helen Herron Taft's Gown.
Mrs. Taft’s dress became part of the Collection of Period Costumes’, Costumes of the Ladies of the White House section. It seems odd that a male dominated curatorial staff in the 1900s would place such an emphasis on this costume collection doesn’t it? Well, in fact the collection started due to the influence of Washington society leader Cassie Mason Myers Julian-James, and Rose Gouverneur Hoes, a descendant of President James Monroe. The two thought it important to showcase the women who held such historical positions and decided to act as volunteer curators. They established correspondence with potential donors, dressed the mannequins in the clothing and organized the exhibition in the United States National Museum building, now known as the Arts & Industries Building.  The exhibit, which opened in 1914, quickly gained in popularity and became a visitor favorite.

First Ladies Exhibit, 1972
First Ladies 1972.
Coolidge is second from left
Eisenhower is fourth from right.

Throughout the years, this tradition has held strong and beautiful dresses from all of the first ladies have been donated. The dresses are not just pretty. They represent the style of the women who wore them and exemplify the trends of the times in which they lived in the White House. Grace Coolidge adorned herself in a red, flapper style dress of the roaring twenties, while Mamie Eisenhower chose floor length, pink gown cut in a silhouette common to dresses on the 1950s.
From Martha to Michelle, the gowns of the First Ladies represent the wives and hostesses of the White House. Exhibited today at the National Museum of American History, the collection remains one of the Smithsonian’s most loved. Today let’s remember the first inaugural gown donated and thank Mrs. Taft, not only for her fabulous choice of dress, (it is my favorite) but for her, Julian-James and Hoes who recognized the importance of preserving materials to connect us to history.


1 comment:

  1. Even as a child, I loved shopping for vintage clothing because I wondered who wore this item before me and the stories they could have told. I tend to connect my clothing to special moments in my life (i.e. suit I wore to my first interview, dress on my first date with my signifiant other, etc). In a way, my closet is my diary.

    The First Ladies exhibit at the NMAH is always the first exhibit I see while visiting Washington, D.C. as a museum intern, because it makes me wonder what these successful women were thinking, doing or planning while wearing these amazing pieces.

    MUS(EUM)INGS: Musings from a Museum Intern