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First Lady Dresses Through the Years

Florence Harding's dress features pearlized sequins on tulle and rhinestone-trimmed blue velvet ribbon. It was designed by Harry Collins. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History).

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Among the many things you've probably never wondered in the lead-up to Barack Obama's inauguration is what kind of dresses first lady Florence Kling Harding wore during the early years of the roaring twenties.

Nonetheless, if you'd like to take your Inaugural dress mania to the next level, America's attic, the Smithsonian Institution, in 2001 put together a nice array of images of first lady dresses of the Inaugural (and other) variety, dating back to a Martha Washington gown from the 1780s, that's worth a look.

"Made of salmon pink faille, Mrs. Washington's dress features a handpainted pattern of flowers and insects," the museum's Web site says. "It was first displayed in the original First Ladies Hall, which opened in the Arts and Industries Building in 1914."

Washington's dress has a lovely federal simplicity -- compared to the fripperies of the mid-19th century gown and headpiece worn by, say, Mary Todd Lincoln -- that makes it, like the political philosophies than animated her era, seem more modern than it is.

Also worth a look: Eleanor Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural dress and Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1993 inaugural gown, both in shades of lavender and purple, a color popular with female politicians thanks to its historic role in the women's suffrage movement.

Or, if you really want to get into the weeds, the Smithsonian provides images of various masculine White House accessories, as well, such as:
Henry Clay's straw hat from the 1840s
; "Top hat allegedly worn by Abraham Lincoln to Ford's Theater on April 15, 1865"; and Warren G. Harding's pajamas, "about 1921-23".


By Web Politics Editor  |  January 12, 2009; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Hillary Rodham Clinton , Michelle Obama , The First Lady , Washington Life  
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