WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama’s fashion is making history again, at least for the next year, as her second inaugural gown will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.
Before it’s stowed away for a future presidential library, Obama’s ruby-colored chiffon gown made by designer Jason Wu is being lent to the National Museum of American History for a year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Smithsonian’s “First Ladies” exhibition. The dress will be paired with Obama’s shoes designed by Jimmy Choo and will go on display beginning Tuesday.
While the Smithsonian traditionally collects each first lady’s first inaugural gown, second gowns are usually shown only in presidential libraries. This is the first time the museum has displayed a second inaugural gown.
The dress was transferred to the National Archives but is being lent to the Smithsonian with the White House’s blessing. Lisa Kathleen Graddy, the Smithsonian’s curator of women’s political history, said it seemed like a nice time to start a new tradition in the ever-evolving “First Ladies at the Smithsonian” exhibit for those who serve two terms in the White House.
“The more I started thinking about it, it’s such a long time before the presidential library is built,” she said. “There’s such interest in the dress, I thought maybe it would be interesting if we could borrow the dress and do a special display … so that people would get a chance to see it.”
This dress drew headlines when Obama unveiled her selection one year ago. It was the second custom-made Jason Wu gown Obama had chosen, following the white gown Wu designed for the first lady when she arrived in Washington and on the fashion scene. Since then, Obama has become a trendsetter.
The red gown is embellished with cut velvet that carries a unique shimmer, Graddy said. It features a cross-halter strap neckline adorned with small diamonds.
“It’s certainly a change, isn’t it, from the white dress with the train,” Graddy said, recalling Obama’s first gown in the museum’s collection. “It’s this amazing, vivid red. No train. So it’s a much slimmer dress — still flowing — but a much slimmer-lined dress. It’s an incredible change of color from that beautiful sparkly white.”
It’s unusual for a first lady to use the same designer twice, at least in recent decades. Wu has said it’s been the experience of his life to help dress the first lady, taking him from fashion insider to a household name since the first inauguration in 2009. Mrs. Obama also has turned to designer Thom Browne for special outfits, including her coat and dress for inauguration day in 2013.
Even her outfits from J. Crew draw notice, and some of Obama’s apparel choices sell out quickly online. For 2014, Pantone Inc.’s color of the year — orchid, a shade of purple — was introduced with a nod to the fact it’s a color Mrs. Obama often wears. Pantone sets color standards for the design industry.
From time to time, the people want to copy the fashion of a first lady, Graddy said, noting Jacqueline Kennedy as an example.
“People look at what she is wearing. They admire it,” she said of Obama. “I don’t think that fashion is Michelle Obama’s first priority. I think that obviously she’s interested in what she wears, and she puts a lot of thought into it — and that’s what people see and respond to is a very put-together look that they would like to emulate.”
The Jimmy Choo shoes paired with Obama’s second gown had a much shorter heel, seemingly more comfortable than her heels for the first inaugural, Graddy said. The first lady knew how long she would be on her feet for the second inaugural.
The Obama gown is a centerpiece for the exhibit that examines the role of the first lady, her political and cultural significance and what she wears. Obama’s first inaugural gown will return to display in January 2015. In future years, the exhibit may evolve to show the changing role of the first lady as it changes with the presidency.
“Certainly, when a woman is president, how the function that is performed by first lady, how that is filled,” she said. “It may be that in future years if a woman is president, if her husband does not fulfill this role, maybe her daughter does, maybe her mother does, maybe it’s a role that becomes professionalized.”
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